ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Teaching Toolbox
How Much is Enough?

Too much class preparation may not pay off.

By Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

Illustration by James Kaczman, Laughing StockThe 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 class.

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 www.asee.org/pubs/teaching.cfm.

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