Managing time as an academic is tough. Work seeps into every crevice of life, and there’s never enough time for all the reading and writing you want to do.
If you’re a teaching academic, you’ll be juggling marking. When marking, time is quantifiable. In my discipline, marking an assignment can take between half an hour to an hour to mark. The better the assignment, the quicker to mark as a rule. If I have 100 students, I can complete marking for those students in 50 hours, at best, and at worst 100 hours.
Assuming I do nothing else for the week and work the standard 40 hour week, it will take me (at best, with no lunch-breaks) one and a half weeks if I don’t work the weekend and at night. If we factor in a few rest-breaks, lunch, phone calls and some meetings in a two week period, it becomes clear as to how marking becomes all-consuming. A simple lunch with colleagues amounts to two assignments I could mark – a phone call amounts to another. Each task you do that isn’t marking just prolongs the inevitable – those assignments have to be marked.
It makes me feel a little overwhelmed just thinking about it now, but I rarely get overwhelmed in practice. This is because I have developed simple techniques to help manage my time. The bigger the class, the more organised I need to be.
I am often asked to share my practice, and these are my top 5 tips for time management when working with large online assessment-based (not MOOC) classes.
- Set online contact hours and stick to them. Tell students you will respond to emails AND discussion forums during these hours routinely. Then DON’T respond to students outside those hours. I set my contact hours three times per week, with one block at night during term so distance students can call/email me and get a response immediately. If I work at night after my contact hours have finished, I save emails as drafts and send them during my next contact period. Sticking to this can be tough. In large classes, however, it’s essential. It’s often tempting to do the easy work and ‘just answer quickly’. But when you have a lot of online students, doing this will suck you into a ‘response vortex’ and students become less inclined to solve their own problems. My management tactic was to create a category in Microsoft Outlook for ‘Students’. I categorise student emails as they come in, and respond to them during my contact periods. It’s critical, if you work like this, to stick to your set hours. Treat them as though you are in class – your students should have your full and undivided attention during these periods.
- Don’t respond to assessment-related questions by email. There’s a good chance that other students have similar questions about assessment. Even if they don’t, any question you answer about assessment will help other students think about their assignments. Advise students that you’ll only respond to assessment questions via the forum. Leave email for personal issues. Most class forums or discussion boards these days have effective search functions. Show students how to use this to search for a topic or your name. I ask students to search for posts by me before they ask a question, just to make sure it hasn’t already been covered. Being assertive doesn’t mean you have to be rude. I may reply by email with a response the first time but I will also advise the student that I will post their question and my reply on the forum. I also make a point of responding to forum posts before emails as this encourages the ‘forum first’ approach. Students start to help one another out while they wait (not too long, but long enough) for my response. It doesn’t take long for collegiality to start to kick in.
- Create a Frequently Asked Questions page on your unit web site. If multiple students are asking the same question about the assignment, then there’s a flaw in your assessment design somewhere. For example, the instructions might not be clear or the task is too complex. Nonetheless, an FAQ page can help address regular questions and then help you evaluate your practice at the end of term. I ask students to check the FAQ page and search the forums before asking a question. I also let them know that I’ll be updating the FAQ page as common questions arise.
- Use the phone. Distance students can feel isolated, so not only is getting a phone call about an issue often quicker to solve a problem – it also helps build relationships. If I see a question on a forum that I sense is a real issue or has the potential to become more problematic (for whatever reason), I’ll respond generally on the forum but also make an individual phone call. I make these phone calls during contact hours. One phone call can save many hours of work later.
- Set students up for success and give good feedback the first time around. Students who don’t understand what they did wrong, and care about their learning, will challenge teachers who don’t provide clear feedback. Making limited comments, and then only grading the student a ‘Pass’ rather than a higher grade – without making reference to where they can improve – is poor practice. Giving meaningful feedback quickly and in a way that targets the individual can be time consuming, but effort put in from the outset will be paid off when students don’t return for a review of grade and when their work improves. Higher quality submissions will take less time to mark. Using exemplars, walking through examples, and identifying common errors from previous terms all takes a bit of time to set up but will save HEAPS of time in the longer run.
My largest unit these days is around 300 students, and sometimes I’m teaching a couple of other units at the same time with much smaller numbers. That means I must be across multiple unit outlines and assessment.
Students who work with me know the rules, and many say they appreciate the routine – it seems to help them manage their own time too. They also appreciate the personal contact when there is a more complex problem to solve…and the only reason I have the time to do this is because I’m not answering the same question 100 times.
I don’t work weekends as a rule unless it’s a marking block, although I do work nights during term. When I’m not in contact hours these days, I’m reviewing papers, doing some research, reading interesting articles, or working with postgraduate students.
Time much better spent.