Streamlining the Workload, Part 2

So, here’s a Part 2 I never expected to post. 

Last time, I wrote about streamlining some of the “paperwork” (or, really, data wrangling) for dealing with attendance tracking, grading, and so on. Experience tells me that not everything there works: for example, I couldn’t find a way to include the Student Numbers students input into their Zoom registrations in my attendance records. (Sigh.) 

Still, a lot of what I discussed there did help. Generating attendance records goes much more quickly when you know how to use a Pivot Table, and when you’ve given strict instructions for how people should register for your class on Zoom (in terms of their email address and their name information). Generating final grades for my Summer class was trivially easy, amounting to about 20 minutes of work once the Final Exams were graded. 

However, we’ve lost a few teachers this semester, and my workload seems to be expanding radically. In a normal semester, I would be teaching 16 hours a week; next semester, I’m scheduled for 22 hours, most of them in Academic Writing-focused courses.

Since my plate was already full even with 16 class hours a week, I’m clearly going to need to change things up a bit to stay on top of things. This post will get into the ideas I’m kicking around about how to do that. If you’re not in a similar position, it may not be of interest to you. 

Academic Writing instruction is among the most work-intensive forms of language teaching: if you’re giving personalized feedback on assignments, every single assignment adds a significant amount of time to your work hours for the week for that class. When you’re teaching multiple sections of the same class, this can create pretty serious problems, and you end up with having to choose two of the following things (and never having all three): 

  • assign assignments in a timely way, so they clearly link to the material studied in the current week of class
  • maintain work life balance
  • use the same assignments in each section of the class

That said, there are a few ways around this. 

Here are some things I’ve figured out and will be doing:

1. I have to do a little triage when it comes to the assignments I give students. 

When it comes to assignments, over the years what I’ve tended to do was to come up with assignments spontaneously, depending on what my classes on average seemed to need. If they were struggling with grammar, they’d get more grammar-focused exercises. With classes that are fine on grammar, there would be more exercises focused on expanding their vocabulary of useable structures, or rhetorical strategies. When you have the luxury of teaching one or two writing classes at most, this is totally doable. 

However, in my current situation, that’s been untenable: I’m saddled with a textbook (which implies specific homework exercises and a specific focus in my teaching for each class, instead of the open-ended approach). Next semester I’ll have even more writing classes, and student needs are all over the place. I cannot fine-tune to each class’s needs and keep things straight, much less get all the involved grading done. 

What worked well during the summer semester was to standardize assignments while also reducing the overall number drastically, changing the way I graded them, and ensuring that as often as possible, the time spent on grading and feedback was commensurate to the purpose of the assignment. I’m talking, basically, about three kinds of work:

  1. Work that isn’t graded, but simply expected. This includes exercises in the textbook. I don’t grade that, and I don’t ask for proof that students did it. Do it, don’t do it: your choice. However, not doing it is just shooting yourself in the food. 
  2. Work that is graded, but only on a pass-fail basis (or a very simple rubric). For example,  I no longer take on the burden of giving personalized feedback on every single paragraph students share for Peer Feedback sessions. They do that 3–4 times a semester, so if I do give feedback, that’s something like 300–400 pieces of writing a semester just for Peer Feedback shares. I do offer personalized feedback, if they ask for it, but it’s verbal and part of the Peer Feedback exercise. Likewise, if I ask students to create a Mind Map, I can have a rubric with something like three to four simple responses pointing out the most common pitfalls and automating the grading. Or I can just give everyone credit and have a small bank of verbal responses I give as necessary. In general, this is work they get feedback on from peers, possibly a question or two answered by me, and they get credit for just sharing it; then they revise the work and post it to their (graded, without feedback, completion-based) Paragraph Blog. 
  3. Work that is graded using a more complex rubric, and which receives personalized written feedback. This used to be my default approach for any assignment, but now, it’s sort of something I reserve for the Midterm Exam, the last paragraph before the Final Exam, and (sort of) the Final Exam. 1

With fewer classes, I might have the luxury of giving more assignments that target specific techniques, skills, or grammar points. With more classes—or, like now, when I’m serious about streamlining my workload—it’s important to cut whatever assignments aren’t absolutely necessary, and combine some so they achieve multiple things at once. 

I guess that’s the big change, for homework, but there are a couple of tasks I need to do: 

2. Even for simple assignments, a Rubric can save time by giving automated feedback for common problems. 

There are only so many ways to mess up an assignment as simple as “Create a Mind Map.” Students might make it too simple; they might underdevelop it. I’ve typically used Rubrics for grading more complex assignments where multiple kinds of problems can arrive, but for simpler work I’ve tended to not use a Rubric and give brief written feedback. However, for assignments where the errors tend to be of the same few kinds, I plan to use rubrics from now on, which I guess means budgeting time for creating them. 

3. Supplementing lectures with prerecorded lecture materials works, and I will keep doing it.

2020 was a mess. In the Spring, I experimented with a very successful approach to teaching through (MOOC-styled) prerecorded lectures, only to see policy change in a way that banned that the next semester. (We were suddenly required to do all teaching “live” online, essentially requiring us to always attempt to emulate traditional classrooms via teleconferencing.) Still, I implemented what I’d learned, rebranding the prerecorded lectures as “supplementary” to the class. 

In Spring 2021, we had brand new editions of the textbooks dropped into our laps at the last minute—I received my copies only a week before the semester began—but I was able to rebuild the “Supplementary Mini-Lecture Videos” for one of the courses, updating the page references and cutting al the stuff that I’d included in the previous Spring. (The one for which I had three sections.) It worked out pretty well! Students were quite happy with that course overall. 

So… I’ll be doing the same for the more advanced writing course this semester: editing the Powerpoints and recording videos over the first week or two of semester, and then focusing the in-class lectures on stuff other than that: structure, brainstorming techniques, writing techniques, rhetorical “moves” or strategies, discussions, and peer feedback sessions. This will give me a little flexibility in terms of time management, which I’m going to need: anyone who thinks six hours of teaching a day is a normal or “manageable” load has never taught university classes. (Likewise anyone who thinks two-hour-long sessions for EFL classes are a good idea: students are done after about 80-90 minutes, and pushing them beyond that only breeds exhaustion, if not outright resentment.)

With supplementary material, I at least have the justification to shorten classes a little: students have equivalent lecture material provided in a more accessible and re-watchable way, the exhaustion of study is minimized, and I also don’t have to worry about criticisms about having “reused” my material since it’s “Supplementary” rather than primary material for the class: reuse is the point! Grammar isn’t changing from one semester to the next, and neither is our textbook by the looks of it, but this also saves me the wasted energy of delivering the same mini-lecture multiple times a week in a format that guarantees poorer retention and higher student frustration. 

This, by the way, means I’m actually teaching a kind of “flipped” class: prerecorded lectures is the “outside of class” portion, and the group exercises, discussions, writing process walkthroughs, and peer feedback exercises are “in class” portion. It’s all online, but it’s still a “flipped class.” I just noticed that the deadline for actually launching classes of this type—a MOOC, or a “Flipped class”—recently passed. Maybe I’ll develop the materials and then apply in the Spring, if they’re still running that program. (It may not qualify, since the last time I checked, our administrators had a specific definition for what a “flipped class” was, which I remember finding overly constraining and curiously specific. But maybe that was just the announcement I saw, I don’t know.  

4. Solid course structure preparation and scheduling time for grading and “class prep” will be crucial. 

I haven’t actually had to worry about this too much: 16–18 class hours a week left enough holes in my schedule for me to play things by ear a bit. (It’s busy, but I could always procrastinate grading a little if I needed to work out what we’d do in the next round of advanced writing classes which started the following day.) With three classes a day on most of my teaching days, I won’t be able to do that so much this coming semester. As much as possible, I need to have my plans for the day-by-day work nailed down and the CMS structure in place by the end of Week 1, and the Supplementary videos at least half done by then, in order for things to be manageable. 

On the bright side, I did just teach a streamlined version of the advanced class this summer: I should be able to use that class’s structure as a blueprint for how the class could be taught over 16 weeks, instead of 16 days, with just a little time spent on splitting the work between the days. Yoking textbook homework to Prerecorded Mini-Lecture Videos (to the point where the textbook homework is listed in the posts where the videos appear, not in the Weekly Homework posts) will be a huge help with that, since students will have the Supplementary Videos available to them from Week 2 onward, and I won’t need to think ahead about how much textbook work is manageable in a given week along side other assignments: students will be free to do the textbook stuff at their own pace. 

I guess that’s it. I expected a longer post, and an earlier draft of this delved deep into analogies with music education and physical education, but I think I’ll save that discussion for another time. Or not. I dunno. I don’t think my teaching-related posts are too widely-read, but sometimes—like with this one—I find it useful to write them anyway, just so I can work out what I’m thinking.  

That’s it for now. I guess maybe I’ll post again when I see how the results work out. 

  1. “Sort of” because I don’t give extensive feedback on Final Exams, but there is a complex rubric and I do at least make a couple of personalized comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *