Making time by teaching efficiently


Science faculty need to be highly effective teachers.

Researchers need to be highly efficient teachers.

How are teaching effectiveness and teaching efficiency related to one another? What can we do to change this relationship to best serve our students and get research done? As a working hypothesis, I suggest the following:


Many variables affect the effectiveness of teaching. Among these variables is instructor effort. The more work you you put into a course, the more students learn. After a certain amount of work, there are diminishing returns. The shape of this relationship can vary, of course, and the function that I’ve invented for the figure isn’t authoritative by any means.

What constitutes efficient and inefficient teaching? How can we increase the slope of the function? Why work for a bigger slope?

If you can teach more efficiently, then your students can learn more and you can have more time for research.

Some highly effective practices are inherently inefficient. These include frequent graded evaluations in class, multiple revisions of written work, and guiding groups of students on independent projects. Other highly effective practices are more efficient. These include guided discovery lessons, frequent checks on understanding during class, “think-pair-share” techniques, and snap ungraded quizzes at the start of every class. Research shows that they are effective teaching approaches but they don’t have to take more time to prepare.

Some technology-intensive approaches can be effective and not necessarily take much time (clickers, moderated question boards, and perhaps “flipping”) while others may take more time to set up than the payoff is worth (quizzes in the course management system, creating online videos to supplement in-class instruction). In my experience, CMS software (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT) is a massive time sink (i.e., inefficient) if you use it to do anything other than disseminate materials. They don’t help students learn as far as I can tell, and are just part of the Techo-Education complex (unless of course it’s an online course, which is a different beast altogether).

Because we all have different experiences and aptitudes, what is efficient for one person may not be for another. For example, some people report that classroom approaches that do not involve traditional lectures take a lot of time and are still worthwhile. I find it’s actually easier to not build a big fat dense lecture, but I did get some genuine training to learn how to do it. Experience with certain techniques can make them more efficient, but others (making and grading quizzes, for example) always takes plenty of time, even if you do them with clickers or some other higher-tech approach.

What are effective and efficient techniques? What inefficient techniques are we obligated to use because they are irreplaceable?

14 thoughts on “Making time by teaching efficiently

  1. I’m enjoying your blog so far!

    Some highly effective practices are inherently inefficient. These include …multiple revisions of written work

    Agreed that this is very inefficient. I TAed a 400-level class for several years in which students had their first real experience with science writing. I would spend hours (plural) sometimes on students’ papers, and go through multiple revisions with them. But by the end, the students (at least those who put in the effort) greatly improved, and really learned how to do scientific writing.

    I’m curious what method you use or recommend to teach science writing? Have you found a more efficient method? I’m all ears (err, eyes)!

  2. What makes people write well, more than anything else, is practice. Most students who are writing poorly do it because high quality writing isn’t expected with adequate frequency.

    Even people who don’t write well can often diagnose what’s wrong with shoddy writing. They simply lack the experience or independence of perspective to be able to recognize it in their own work.

    So you don’t need to edit a stack of papers. You can have students revise one another’s work. You’re doing your job as long as you know that the students are doing appropriate edits for one another, at least part of the time. (Because we also know when poor editorial suggestions don’t improve the work. High quality editing is self-evident.) The editing process itself is useful to your students, because editing the writing of others can improve your own.

    The last time I had a writing assignment, I first had the class read – in class five five minutes- a short and well written piece. (Erwin’s classic paper in the Coleopterists Bulletin). I had the students discuss in small groups to identify the characteristics of the writing that made it good writing, and they reported back and we had a small discussion about it. Then, I took a piece of somewhat okay anonymous student writing from another time and place, and projected it for the class. With everybody watching, I modeled the editing process in google docs and showed them how and why I made a score of changes to improve it. I let them interrupt me with questions or suggestions as we did it. Then, in their small groups I had them share their own documents in google docs, and had four students simultaneously work on a single document to improve it (this works if you make that most have their laptops). Sometimes they’d try to change the same thing in different ways, and then they had to resolve this to find the best approach.

    I’d hop onto each one during class, and not make changes, but make remarks here and there on the documents. It was surprising how good the edits were.

    After that for the rest of the semester, I had the students swap drafts and make edits for one another. They were required to have every draft edited by at least two other people. I told students I’d do it for them if they asked me, and a few did, but not as many as I thought would.

    I am sure there are English composition faculty, if they would ever discover this, that would have a conniption.

  3. Thanks, Terry. That’s a great suggestion, and a good use of active teaching methods.

  4. Just found you through dynamic ecology…I’m currently conducting a survey of teaching in ecology because I’m curious about what people are doing, what are the barriers to change and what people find effective. I like your suggestion about improving writing! Here’s a snapshot of a relevant question:

    How often do you use the following techniques in your ecology courses? [multiple drafts of written work]

    never 29 23%
    rarely 23 19%
    sometimes 35 28%
    frequently 16 13%
    always 21 17%

    So far it looks like almost half hardly do this, I’m really curious to see how things stack up as more people respond.

    Here’s the link if you’re interested in taking the survey.

  5. I was glad to fill out the survey. Every time I get an email from a student, it reinforces the need to involve writing, even though it’s a huge investment. A wonderful student of mine (who is working on her first manuscript now), hasn’t written more than a few pages for any class, ever, and none of them with multiple revisions. And, she’s graduating one year from a “teaching school.”

      • Exactly, it is. This student who has barely had the chance to write in college has been taught by faculty teaching so much, that the writing assignments could not be reasonably expected of them. If what makes a good writer is lots of practice and adequate feedback, though, the professor could set up the class so that the feedback comes primarily from peers. It shortchanges the student compared to faculty feedback, to some extent, but it’s better than the status quo.

  6. Just started looking at the blog after seeing the announcement on ecolog. Looks interesting. I’d be interested for you to elaborate on this statement ” I find it’s actually easier to not build a big fat dense lecture, but I did get some genuine training to learn how to do it.” I’d lecture less if I thought it wouldn’t add exponentially to my prep time.

    • I have in the queue – which is getting more exciting and deeper with possibilities on my end – to spend more time about how to do non-lecture lessons that don’t take additional prep time, and may even take less. There are plenty of things about these kinds of lessons, but the way that education faculty write about it, they make it sounds like unless you spend your life preparing each lesson that it won’t work well. Education articles evaluate suggested best practices, with emphasis on BEST. Not ‘pretty darn good.’ I’m shooting for pretty darn good, because BEST would mean that I’d never sleep or eat or do research. Stay tuned, it won’t be soon, but I’ll get to it. Again, I’m not an expert in this at all. I hope more non-teaching experts write about teaching well, because the experts seem to expect far too much of us.

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