5 Tips for Becoming an Effective, Time-Wise Teacher

In my book, Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching, I urge readers to “be able to be efficient in all things.” This is the first of six principles I outline in the book, and below are five tips for college teachers based on this principle. Look for future posts by me in this blog with more tips to help you “make time.”

1. Know Your “Lines in the Sand” and State Them Clearly, Early, and Often

Teaching professors are creators and administrators of educational policy, whether we like it or not. (Tweet this quote.) All of us have “lines in the sand” about which we feel strongly and are unlikely to compromise. As we teach and notice these things, we should articulate them as course policy statements which we communicate to the students clearly, early, and often, preferably in the syllabus but if not codified in writing then declaimed frequently in person. This practice not only makes sense in terms of sound evaluation practice — making expectations overt and specific for students — but also, it contributes to a surprising degree to our teaching efficiency. Not only do we save time by not agonizing over and over about what to do when students do something that we simply cannot abide, but also, we save time by not having to explain to individual students why we graded their work the way that we did.

2. Interact with Students with Intentional Time and Depth

Set informal limits to interacting with individual students that are consistent with the amount of time and number of students that you have. Most of us have a comfortable rhythm for interacting with students — fast or slow, or somewhere in between — and we do not adjust it according to our class size. I am suggesting that if we try to give each course approximately the same amount of time — a reasonable general ambition — then a small class requires a different teacher interaction pattern than does a large class. As with many of these recommendations, explaining this dynamic to the students (negotiating with others) as well as explicitly changing our interaction expectations of ourselves (negotiating with ourselves) helps us to change our behavior successfully and productively.

3. Use Technological Tools in Course-Related Scholarship

For both teaching-related content and process, we need to learn — and use — efficient ways to search and gather pertinent information, materials, and activities related to our courses. Whether we are keeping up with our existing courses or preparing new courses, we need to exercise our scholarly training routinely to gather knowledge efficiently.

Technological tools can help dramatically in this regard. For example, Internet search engines explore web-based data sets quickly and effectively and can make tremendous amounts of time for teachers to use in other ways. When needing quickly to update ourselves on a topic, we can employ any number of web-based search tools which rapidly deliver to us abstracts of much of the latest published work on a particular subject. The advanced search options in these tools allow us to exercise a remarkable degree of precision in these searches.

Web sites regarding teaching of our subjects may exist with collections of instructional units. With the advent of the scholarship of teaching and learning movement, some of these web sites are even peer reviewed, as the effort develops to support the promotion, tenure, and merit reward of professors’ scholarly commitment to teaching (e.g., http://www.merlot.org).

4. Use Technological Tools to Check for Plagiarism

When suspecting a student of plagiarism, professors can break a sweat in the library trying to find the smoking gun. (Tweet this quote.) However, you no longer have to rifle through hundreds of books themselves.

Estimates of the degree to which college and university students plagiarize or buy papers on the Internet are staggeringly high. However, the same technology that helps students to plagiarize can help teachers to confirm it. Teachers can simply enter suspect sentences in the Google search engine (http://www.google.com). Often, it will find the original sources for us within seconds. A cottage industry based on selling term papers has quickly turned into big, web-based business. However, the market has bred web-based detection services in response. The jury is out on whether or not these services are worth the price. If you and your colleagues are spending large amounts of time on these particular issues of academic integrity, you may want to investigate these services. Meanwhile, good, old Google is always there, and free.

5. Use Robots to Score and Record Tests

Another teaching task that can take a lot of time is scoring and recording student performance on multiple-choice tests and quizzes, if you use these kinds of evaluation tools. Course management systems such as Blackboard have tools that do this work for us. As with the previous set of ideas, we should let robots do the work wherever it makes sense. Although accessed via the web, these tests normally need to be proctored in order to control for cheating, which means that we need to give them in a supervised class setting where the students have computers with Internet access.

Making Time Making Change



Douglas L. Robertson (Ph.D., Syracuse University) has authored or co-edited seven books, with his first book, Self-Directed Growth (published 28 years ago) still in continuous print in its original edition. His most recent book is A Guide to Faculty Development, 2nd ed., which he co-edited with Kay Gillespie. In total, he has authored or co-authored over 320 publications and presentations.  He has helped to start or transform five university faculty development centers and has served as director at three of them.  Currently, he is Dean of Undergraduate Education at Florida International University, a metropolitan research university in Miami, Florida, which has 55.000 students and is the fifth largest university in the United States.