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.