Class duration and time for research


If you had total control, how would you block your teaching time?

Would you want classes to meet frequently for short periods of time, or infrequently but for a long stretch each time? What is good for your research? What is good for the students? Are the two mutually compatible?

One end of the continuum (the block system aside) is having classes meet 3-5 days per week, plus a lab. When I was in college, my intro science classes met in the mornings, 5 days per week, for an hour, over 10 weeks.

At the other end of the continuum is where I am teaching now. Most daytime classes are either MW or TTh, so they meet for 1.5 hours twice per week. There are almost no MWF classes. Since most faculty teach four courses per semester, this presents enough flexibility so that scheduling is not impossible, though I feel deep sympathy for the chairs that have to schedule.

We also have a many classes that meet in the evenings, as I teach on a commuter campus. Plenty of them meet once per week, for three hours. My teaching load has included these for the last few years.

Tonight, after my kid already gets home from school, I’m teaching for three hours. I only see these students once per week. This semester I do this on two nights per week. I miss evening activities with my kid, but it does lead to having more time with him at other moments, including my being able to pick him up from school those other days. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I’m available for parenting the evenings I’m not teaching, and my spouse sometimes has weekend commitments. I think it evens out during the semester, in terms of parental effort.

How do feel about it, in terms of my research opportunity? I’m liking it a lot. On most days, I have massive blocks of time that I can protect to allocate to time-consuming tasks. It’s great. I also don’t have to rush into campus those days, and I can take care of business at home. It also leads to an expectation that I might not be on campus in the day, if I am there in the evening.

How does it work out pedagogically? At first I was reluctant and concerned that it wouldn’t work out. After doing the same class several times, I’ve been converted to this schedule. First of all, preparing for a class is three times as much work, though that also is less frequent. That’s something to take into account. But assuming that you’re prepared, how does it affect learning? I think it’s a net gain. Actually, putting my own schedule aside, I’d structure all of my classes to meet in a 3-hour stretches on a weekly basis instead of more frequent lectures.

Why do I think this time format is better? Because active learning requires focus and depth. I was reluctant to teach these long infrequent classes because, let’s face it, after three hours of lecture your mind is pulp. You’re exhausted and parched, and the students are on overload. All lecture audiences slow down after 20 minutes.

Once I learned how to stop lecturing, and to teach using other approaches, we have time to learn much more deeply when we’re together. And I have enough experience running a classroom to keep students accountable in the intervening week, so that their brains don’t shut off during that time span. I realize that it’s nearly impossible, at least in the short term, to shift class schedules around for many political and practical reasons. This is, though, a good thought exercise to think about what’s best when you do have the choice.

Grad students in the sciences who teach for a living learn to balance their time while teaching long class sessions. Usually, grad students are teaching the lab sections. I taught three 3-hour sections per week to get my TA wage (for a wage around the poverty line) in grad school. So, that’s not that different from what I’m doing now as faculty. If grad students with TAships have time for a dissertation, then if faculty plan well they should have plenty of time for research.

If you’re lecturing, I think short classes are best, or least bad, for the students, because the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to absorb lectures for long stretches, even when they are engaging. But if you’ve abandoned the lecture, then long classes will give you the time to let students consider topics in depth and learn a lot more. And, on the plus side, having classes in big blocks will let you schedule research in big blocks, too.

6 thoughts on “Class duration and time for research

  1. I really enjoy taking and teaching classes that meet for longer time periods. At my former institution we called these “workshop” courses. Instead of meeting for three lectures a week plus a 3 hour lab section, we met for either 2x3hours per week or 3x2hours per week. The 3x2hour format was awesome for getting some depth on a particular topic and having time to do some exercises or small experiments – as you say, once you learn how to stop lecturing. I would have a hard time with the evening classes, though…

  2. I would love to hear more about how you actually use those large blocks of time. Even those of us interested in careers at teaching-focused institutions are still largely being trained at big research universities which rely on a heavy lecture-only style curriculum. In talking to undergrads at my current R1, they say they hate things like “turn to your neighbor”. I suspect that is partly because they are not socialized to participate in class that way.

  3. The evening classes are a bit rough at first, but then I love having the day available. More than twice per week would be crazy, though. (An additional layer in my own schedule is my commute by metro or by car, which isn’t short. This affects how I do things.)

    Amber – I fortunately got the chance to get reassigned from a course to learn how to do interactive lecturing and discovery-based lessons with someone from our college of education. It was really enlightening. Among the things I learned were that even though students might say they don’t like it, if you do it frequently enough they do. In a big lecture hall, it’s best if they actually identify partners and/or groups to sit near, and to require this. I now start all of my classes, when I introduce the syllabus and policies, explaining my approach to the class. I say more or less, “My plan is to teach nothing. If I am teaching facts and concepts, then I’ve already failed, because you’ll forget them in weeks or years. Instead, I want to set up the circumstances of the class for you to discover information for yourself. This means that we’ll be running this class a lot differently than most of your other classes. You’re going to trust me on this. I’m not an expert at teaching like this, but I think it’ll be an improvement over what I’ve done in the past.”

    If it’s a regular part of the course, rather than just happening out of the blue, then students like it. In my last 3-hour class, I was speaking for a maximum of ten minutes over the whole class. The students, nevertheless, learned a TON and I got a number of “that was a great class!” remarks afterwards. (The compliment was nice, though it could have come with less surprise.) I might post my ‘lesson plan’ for that as a post in the coming weeks.

    Even if you don’t entirely change your lessons, the students will greatly benefit if you stop every 10-15 minutes and give them a quick problem for them to solve on their own, or to solve and discuss with a neighbor. The research shows that people learn much better when interacting with others, than when figuring it out on their own. Even if they don’t like it at first, they will grow to doing it. It’s okay to ‘go meta’ and explain why you’re doing this. I think I’ll be posting more, about how to get interactive lectures started. I think that’s the point. None (or very few) of us in the sciences are trained experts at teaching. We’re just experienced. So we might as well try to stumble through anyway. This isn’t a teaching blog, but I think these kinds of lessons actually might take less prep time, depending on how you do it, and are more effective.

  4. Terry,

    I think that is interesting about the 3 hour once a week session, and it makes a great deal of sense in terms of our lives as researchers. I am interested in what you opinion is on what is best for the students at a teaching centered school along two lines. 1) They come to these places to interact with us (teachers) as people more, so if they see us fewer days are we actually meeting their expectations. 2) What about freshman, I can see longer blocks of time with fewer days being great for Juniors and Seniors who know the ropes and what is expected of them. Freshman, I think benefit from interacting with us more, helping that transition from a high school setting where they have class every day. Any thoughts?

  5. Yeah, I’d be reluctant to have a class meet once per week for first-year students. Part of it’s the expectation to do coursework and study in the intervening week, but another part is building a consistent peer network. They’ll work closely in those three-hour meetings, but I think seeing one another more frequently would help build a core of people who study together (for both commuter and residential campuses). If the students were cohorted together through their first year (one of the emerging “best practices,” as much as the phrase annoys me), then the might gel together. Theoretically this is where technology could come into play. You could require that everyone post to some board on a particular day with an observation from homework or something. They’d need to post and vote on google moderator, perhaps. That’d keep them engaged even if you’re not meeting.

    But I think the students would think they’re not getting what they’re paying for. For young students, seeing them often lets me model behavior for them. Not that they see me as an example, but if I start right before class chatting about science in the news, political events in some other country, or the novel I’m reading at the moment, then they’ll see how I stay engaged in the world beyond what I do in the classroom. That ideally is what students can get from routine interactions with faculty, I think.

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