Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Working Smarter: Strategies for managing teaching workload while maintaining quality in a tertiary context

I met with a group of colleagues as part of our teaching advocacy work the other day and we discussed issues around teaching workload and how to work smarter, managing the time we spend on teaching-related tasks while maintaining quality pedagogy. Contributors to our discussion were teacher educators, curriculum experts, sport and leisure specialists and teachers of bridging courses for international students preparing for degree study.

While avoiding an exhaustive summary, this post gathers up a few key ideas and gems from the collegial discussion, particularly highlighting frustrations, ways of thinking about workload, and strategies for managing marking and feedback.

While not having enough time to do everything well is a frustration for most, colleagues are also frustrated by what might be called ‘the cult of busyness’ that permeates teaching in tertiary institutions. Colleagues constantly complain that they/we are all too busy, and we even meet over coffee to talk about how busy we are. It pays to stop and think about what it means to be busy and how meaningful our busy-work is. After all, busyness is relative and is fundamentally a choice that we make. We all have 24 hours in a day and we all make choices about time management.

As I listened to my colleagues, I was reminded of a favourite concept from my high school economics days – Opportunity Cost
That is, every choice has a cost in terms of other choices (opportunities) foregone.
  • If we choose to leave our marking until the last minute, we have to mark all weekend to meet the deadline.
  • If we take on extra work to help a colleague, we have less time with family.
  • If we sacrifice sleep for work, we have less energy to give to responsive and engaging teaching (or to anything else for that matter).

This is where the tough questions have to be asked:
What (Who) are our priorities?
Who are we serving? (or saving?)
Who is applying the pressure?
How productive and purposeful is our time?
Are we competing in a race?
And importantly, what messages are we conveying to students about learning and teaching? 

The latter is particularly important in a teacher education context, where as Loughran (2006) suggests, the manner in which we teach provides a model for students through which they learn about teaching. With this in mind, as a teacher educator I am doing a disservice to student teachers and to the profession if my attitude and behaviour communicates a sense of exhaustion, in effect teaching students that teaching is tough, draining and unrelenting. Who would want to do it!?

Even outside of teacher education, there is a risk of conveying hidden messages to students that risk impeding their growth as learners. For example, if we nurture dependence by encouraging students to seek our approval on every decision, and to look to us for every answer, we cultivate learned helplessness that is not conducive to lifelong learning.

If we respond to emails at weekends, we establish an expectation that we will always be available 24/7 to students and colleagues alike.

Doing things differently means thinking about things differently.

On to the Doing part: Interestingly, a great many of the strategies shared by those present coalesced around the challenges of marking student work and providing helpful feedback.

These include:
Taking a pro-active approach by front-ending preparation for assignments. That is, instead of presenting a vague and loosely articulated assignment, give clear and specific instructions, directions and work with students in class to understand requirements and criteria. This pre-empts ongoing confusions and reduces the number of student queries and complaints down the track. 

Is this teaching to the test? If the assessment task is an appropriately rich and engaging task, does it matter?

Is this encouraging a checklist mentality? Again, this comes back to the rich task. Teaching students how to critique an academic article is an example. It is important to look at what it means to critique, what critical thinking involves (and what it does not), and what a written critique might look like. It is helpful to practice formulating a critique. We did all of this in class with third year students on campus a few weeks ago, partly in preparation for upcoming assignments, and partly because the ability to critique is an expectation of graduates (which of course is why we assess it in the first place). Teaching to the test is not a problem if the assessment has been devised as a rich, authentic and worthwhile task.

Another strategy for managing workload associated with marking and feedback is to note repetitive feedback and devise shortcuts – e.g. by copying feedback statements or giving general feedback to the class based on common misunderstandings 
Keep in mind that marking is not editing. It is not necessary to edit a student’s work as they will not be resubmitting it for publication. Instead of correcting mechanics of writing or referencing, point out in general terms that there is a need for more careful proofreading, or to fine-tune citations, and refer students to sources of help in order to spread the load.  
Writing all over a student’s work so that it is bleeding red ink is conceived by some recipients as killing the assignment. Homicidal use of track changes is the same death in a digital format.

Finally, for now, colleagues suggested that for assignments later in the semester, reduce the volume of feedback. Frontload the feedback at the start, scaffold the students’ learning early in the course of study, then fade the level of feedback as the semester proceeds. Feedback is only useful and formative if it is acted upon. At the end of the course, students want their grades in a timely manner and want to know why they received the grade they did.

Which of these frustrations and ways of thinking resonate with you?
Considering how you manage your teaching workload, what can you add to the strategies?

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