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Control the Clock – 5 Time Management Tips for Instructors

“Look at all this extra time I have!” Said no educator…ever.

As more and more tasks (assessments, committees, research, grant proposals, etc.) continue to fall on educators’ plates, our to-do lists grow exponentially. I have seen this turn into a semester after semester of frustration, sleep deprivation, and feeling unsuccessful at that nebulous goal of a work-life balance. While I’m certainly far from an expert and sometimes fail to take my own advice, I have discovered there are some key components to time management for educators as well as the students we teach.

  1. Pay attention to basic needs first

Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy, which identifies these basic needs as physiological (food, water, warmth, rest) and safety (feeling secure and safe). How often have you gotten to the end of a workday only to realize you’ve barely had anything to drink or eat? Overheard your students “brag” about how little sleep they’ve had? If we lack these foundational elements, we are unable to be the best versions of ourselves, whether as educators, students, or individuals. Talk with your classes about these necessities. Give examples such as how we tend to get sick around midterms and finals due to lack of sleep and often, poor food choices as well. These basic needs should be prioritized and nurtured daily, even when there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day.

  1. A little preparation goes a long way

Dedicate a day or two at the end of each semester to updating exams, worksheets, handouts, etc. Edit any lectures that need tweaking, update syllabi, schedules, and any online work. Send materials to printing services, so that you get them back prior to the new semester AND put them away (in a place you’ll remember!). While I know that sometimes these materials need to get altered on the fly, for the most part, this preparation saves a lot of time and headaches when the semester is in full swing.

  1. Do a time inventory

Take a day or two this week to write down each activity you do and how long each takes you. This exercise includes all of your activities—work-related, leisure, regular commitments, sleep, eating—in short everything. Why? When my students and I have done this, we have all discovered that there is a time in our days that could be used more effectively. That 20 minutes scrolling through Facebook—could you get some papers graded instead? Could your students quiz themselves on material from the lecture? That 40 minutes watching the latest binge-worthy Netflix show—could you prepare lunch for the next day or exercise? Could your students get 40 more minutes of sleep? When we do this AND rank what things are critical vs. desirable vs. unnecessary, we can direct our time more effectively and stop feeling quite so overwhelmed.

  1. Be realistic about assigned work

We know that students flourish with practice, but to be effective, the practice usually requires feedback. It’s a fine balance between helping our students and not drowning in piles of papers and red ink ourselves.

Know your limits. When you do the time inventory, look at how much time you’ll have available for giving feedback each week. Put it on a schedule along with your classes and other commitments, then decide what types and what number of activities are reasonable. I highly recommend using online assessment tools such as McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect or ALEKS, an LMS such as Blackboard, or similar automated digital tools; it’s an easy way to save time and assign automatically graded work to help your students practice with feedback. Likewise, some of these tools give you a direct analysis of student performance so you can make your classroom time more effective based on student needs.

For my students, regularly scheduled smaller assignments and quizzes throughout the week work best. Students often lack time management skills and inevitably do their work at the last minute. This type of practice helps to change that behavior. Through trial and error, work to determine which types of activities are crucial to understanding the material. Longer doesn’t always mean better. Let your students know upfront about how often they can expect assignments and the reason behind them. Trust me on this one—when I started explaining to students why I had them do a particular activity, the atmosphere in my classroom changed dramatically.

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Colleagues can be a fantastic source of inspiration for classroom activities that are not only effective but time-saving. Work with each other to share tools that are useful and adjust them to your own needs. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Be patient with yourself and realize some days or weeks will be better than others. Try a few of these tactics and see if you feel a little less stressed and a little more in control.

About the Author

Elizabeth Mays has been a biology professor at Illinois Central College for the past 17 years. She is the lead instructor of a non-majors biology course and has also filled that role in several anatomy and physiology courses. While historically teaching in-person courses, she has gained significant experience in online teaching and hybrid education over the past few years, including certification through the Online Learning Consortium™. She strives to incorporate simple activities and practices into her teaching that encourage student ownership of learning, mindfulness, and content relevancy to promote student success. Her passion is building student confidence in biology content that often seems too difficult or unattainable. Elizabeth has also authored and edited Connect® and SmartBook® projects for McGraw Hill has served on an Advisory Board for substantial MGH product improvements, and actively functions as a Digital Faculty Consultant. She has also served on a National Science Foundation Panel as a reviewer. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, fitness, spending time with her husband, and watching her two boys play baseball.

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