For many instructors, the semester can seem like a retreating goalpost: the more we move through our syllabi and assignments, the busier we get. Anyone who teaches can identify with the struggle: deadlines intensify, time keeps running out, and mountains of ungraded student work threaten to avalanche us. How do we tackle it all?
To alleviate some of this stress and maintain our sanity, time management becomes especially important. The following four ideas may be the ticket to staying on target, even in the busiest moments of the semester.
Get out of the house
For most of us, on-campus obligations—classroom instruction, office hours, and departmental tasks—only account for a fraction of our responsibilities. Arguably, grading and commenting on student work eats up the majority of our time. Trickily enough, this happens “on our own time,” allowing us the latitude to choose when and where we get everything done. While this may seem like a blessing to many, the freedom to decide comes with little outside structure or enforced urgency. As a result, many instructors end-up grading at home—on weekends or in the evenings—and having to be productive in a space that is rife with its own distractions and duties.
To maximize productivity, I find it best to keep home and work separate. Whenever I comment on students’ work I am tempted to take naps, make lunch, watch Netflix, do laundry, or call friends. The mixing of private and professional only distracts from the job at hand and causes it to take twice as long. Whether I spend extra time in my office or work (on weekends) in a booth at Panera Bread, seeking out a “professional space” helps me to focus on professional tasks and avoid interruption.
Practice holistic feedback
In giving feedback, many instructors simply do too much. Although the impulse to correct or provide feedback on every mistake is a good one, it is ultimately misguided. Aggressive commentary takes the onus off the student (who ought to be actively revising his or her work, not merely appeasing the instructor’s demands) and offers more criticism than the student can process. In terms of time management, this approach proves burdensome to the instructor, prompting them to work impractically.
Rather than critique student work at the question or sentence level, instructors might consider holistic commentary, detailing one or two widespread pieces of feedback that the student might wish to consider. Your students will be better able to focus their attention and correct their mistakes if given a handful of things to focus on and you can work more effectively in getting feedback back to students while the assignments/quizzes are fresh in their mind.
Approach things incrementally
I teach Freshman Composition and depending on my course load, I can expect up to 50 student submissions in any two-week period., I find it more manageable to address these assignments incrementally. Starting immediately, I set a goal of reading 5-10 pieces a day and this lends an unusual efficiency to the grading process. The benefits are numerous:
- Reduce Stress
By breaking the larger task into smaller ones, I am able to set a daily goal for myself and reach it without too much stress. In between other obligations, I can attack two or three essays and feel accomplished rather than overwhelmed.
- Feeling Accomplished vs Overwhelmed
This incremental approach treats grading as a habit—something to be addressed every day, rather than once a week. With a workload of 5-10 papers, I am able to maintain concentration and efficiency. (Attempting to grade 30 or 40 papers in one marathon session only results in a migraine.)
- Using My Time Effectively
I tend to return work in a timelier fashion when I grade this way. (Typically, leaving the great mountain of ungraded papers until the weekend results in a Monday morning apology to my students: “I’ll need a few more days to finish…”) Budgeting these to-be-graded assignments helps me to set a return date and stick to it.
Take breaks and promise yourself rewards.
No one can concentrate indefinitely. When budgeting time for grading, be sure to factor in some space for taking a pause: walking to the vending machine, checking a favorite website, or making a phone call. These moments away from the work at hand are necessary cognitive refreshers; they keep us from exhausting our critical faculties and keep our focus sharp.
Breaks ought to be scheduled and controlled, though, to ensure the usefulness and appropriate timing of these little breathers, it helps to view them as rewards for work completed. If you allow yourself ten minutes of goofing off on the Internet only after getting through five drafts, you will diffuse any potential frustration and also make sure that you’re not sacrificing your attention to the tasks at hand.