Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#257 Class Preparation Time - How Much Is Enough?


The article posted below, "How Much is Enough? Too much class
preparation may not pay off," by by Phillip Wankat and Frank
Oreovicz, is from their Teaching Toolbox column appearing in Prism,
the magazine of the American Society of Engineering Education,
September, 2000, Volume 10, No. 1 P. 41. Reprinted with permission.
The authors discuss an excellent, and often overlooked notion; there
is a point of diminishing return in everything we do, including the
preparation time we devote to our classes.


Rick Reis
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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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ASEE Prism
September 2000
Teaching Toolbox
Volume 10, No. 1
P. 41

How Much is Enough?
Too much class preparation may not pay off.

By Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

The myth that more class preparation is always better is precisely
that--a myth. Not only can it lead to mediocre teaching but it also
makes us feel guilty if we reduce class preparation time, even if our
teaching is excellent. This myth is particularly pernicious for new
faculty members, because it robs them of time to set up research
programs while not improving their teaching.
Of course, reducing preparation time by too much is clearly a bad
idea. But how much is enough? Two hours for new lectures and half an
hour for lectures you've given before is a good guideline. You may be
asking: How can an engineering professor get away with so little? The
key is starting early to prevent panic, and spending a controlled
amount of preparation time focused on the most important parts of the

But surely, if two hours results in a good lecture, then four or
eight hours will make it that much better, right? Not necessarily so.
Robert Boice, in Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Allyn
and Bacon, 2000), notes that too much preparation time is a very
common problem of new faculty members. Excessive preparation can
result in too much attention to details and "covering content" at the
expense of overall student learning.

To use such a "lean and mean" process, it is important to prepare for
class in small chunks of time, rather than working through an
exhausting marathon of preparation. First, a few days before each
lecture, take 10 or 15 minutes to develop a title and a brief
conceptual outline. Then put it aside and do something else.

A day or two later, return to your preparation and reread your
outline. Determine if you have captured the main points. Briefly jot
down explanations and examples that explain the key items. Try a
"just-in-time" approach, where you introduce an example problem to
the class, and then provide the information needed to solve the
problem. Use a single example with many "what-ifs" instead of several
unconnected examples. Stop working on the lecture after half an hour
to 45 minutes.

Later, return to the preparation and finish the details. Then look at
the lecture and decide where to put the activity breaks: one or
preferably two breaks in a 50-minute lecture. Even though the lecture
is not perfect, now is the time to stop preparing. Remember the
Pareto principle, or "80-20 rule": 80 percent of the benefit occurs
in the first 20 percent of preparation time.

What you have produced is notes, not a completely written draft. If
you prefer to use the blackboard or hand-write on the overhead
projector, write these notes on paper or note cards. If you use a
word processor or PowerPoint, you will now have a rough draft of the
transparencies. One last pass through your notes will allow you to
correct the worst spelling and grammatical errors and produce
acceptable transparencies in minimal time. If you like, hand these
out as partial class notes.

Shortly before the lecture, review your notes and prepare yourself
psychologically (about 10 to 15 minutes). At this point, you will
have spent about two hours on the lecture, and you should be ready to
teach the class. Arrive five minutes early to prepare the classroom
and chat with the students. Relax and enjoy the interaction with the
students. If you make a mistake, make a joke and correct it. Control
your urge to cover "just one more point" and stop on time or a minute
early. Then stay a few minutes after class to chat with students.

The subtitle of Boice's book, nihil nimbus, translates as "everything
in moderation"--good advice for teaching. Reducing preparation time
focuses your attention on key items and gives you more time to
develop and use active learning exercises that involve the students.
Less detail and a more flexible set of notes will help you, and
therefore the students, to relax. Need one more benefit? With your
preparation process under control, you'll finish your lectures on
time--earning you the students' lasting gratitude.

For more teaching tips, visit the Teaching Engineering page at
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