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Why and How to Automate Your Teaching

Advice for being more efficient in the classroom.

December 2, 2015
 

Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her on Twitter as @aguarnera, Instagram as @aguarnera, and the World Wide Web at her website.

 

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If you’re a teaching assistant reading this today, congratulations! You’re almost done with the fall semester.

As normal class schedules give way to exam and paper grading (and lots of it), these last few weeks of the semester are a great time to look back over what you’ve accomplished since August, and to start planning for the future. In particular, now’s the time to take stock of what worked in your teaching and what didn’t—not simply from a pedagogical point of view, but also with regard to your personal productivity.

One way to streamline teaching? Automate it. By automating certain aspects of teaching, we can spend less time managing organizational challenges and more time on the tasks that really matter (and require more mental input), like careful lesson planning and assessment writing.

Here are three areas of your teaching that you can automate to increase your effectiveness in the classroom. If you’re new to teaching, you might find these especially helpful.

1. Reconsider your grading practices.  Even if you haven’t designed the grading requirements of the courses that you teach, you may be able to refine your grading practices to make them more efficient. Here’s a very different suggestions:

  • For large writing assignments, rubrics are helpful (as are Travis Grandy’s suggestions for how to prioritize your feedback). You can also save time by keeping a Microsoft Word document of the comments that you most frequently use, so that you can copy and paste your feedback to students instead of transcribing longhand it every time.
  • For multiple-choice quizzes and other straight-forward assessments, like reading checks, have students grade their own before giving them to you. They get instant feedback on their performance and you save a lot of time, even factoring in the extra minutes you’ll need to give them a once-over to ensure students’  honesty.
  • You can even optimize how you grade class participation: for example, in my language classes, instead of relying on more subjective evaluations of class participation (some of which are inevitably skewed towards more talkative students), I use random cold calling and group activities almost exclusively. My classes are small enough that I can make sure that I call on all students in a single meeting, but if you have very large classes, you can use an app to keep track of who you’ve called on. When I call on students, I expect a good faith attempt to answer the question accurately; as long as students make a concerted effort in that respect, their participation grade doesn’t suffer. In my years of teaching, I’ve never had a student abuse this policy, and it makes my evaluations of their class participation much more straightforward and less time-consuming, since I don’t spend hours racking my brain to figure out how often each student has contributed to class discussions.

2. Hire your own “TA.” If it doesn’t violate departmental policies, consider appointing one student per section to serve as your “TA” in exchange for extra credit. This student can do a number of tasks that will streamline your administrative work: take attendance, alphabetize any papers that students hand in (or organize them by randomly-assigned ID number) to speed your grading process, and hand back graded work. Having your TA take over these tasks, provided that he/she is reliable and trustworthy, frees you up to spend the first few minutes of class developing your relationships with students by greeting them and checking in, instead of wrangling papers. Hint: some especially kind students will do this even without receiving extra credit. It’s worth asking.

3. Thoughtfully use technology to optimize classroom time. Teaching presents a lot of organizational and communication challenges, which can be overwhelming without the appropriate systems and routines to address them. Here are a few low-tech (and some high-tech) ideas to tame the most difficult tasks:

  • Buy a large accordion file (or two). Create in/outboxes for each day and each section that you teach, and keep students’ papers in those. Never spend time rifling through your bag/briefcase again.
  • Free up mental energy by creating checklists for anything that you (or your students) need to do for your class on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. You can thank Atul Gawande for this suggestion.
  • Employ social media/apps to remind students of upcoming assignment due dates or exams to study for. Remind and Whatsapp are highly recommended to send group texts. You can also create Facebook groups for your students and have them post questions about assessments there. They can even answer each others’ questions—and you’ll never have to spend five minutes of class time reviewing due dates again!

If you choose to introduce any of these methods next semester, I encourage you to share with your students why you’re doing it: you want to make the most of your time both in the classroom and outside of it (maybe even to free up some time for “real life”—guilt free). In my experience, students respect and respond well to this kind of intentional planning.

Can you think of other areas of teaching that can be “automated” to improve our effectiveness in the classroom? If so, share them in the comments section or on Twitter with the hashtag #AutoTeaching!

[Image by Flickr user Peyri Herrera and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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