Monday, September 17, 2007

Filling Class Time

One of the classes I'm teaching this term meets for two hours. Even though I have taught this class many times before, each time is different and each time involves a lot of preparation before class. As I prepare for each class, I veer between "How am I ever going to fill 2 hours of class time?" and "There is way too much material to cover in two hours."

My uncertainty about how the two hours will be spent stems in part from the fact that, ideally, much of the class involves participation by the students, most of whom are first year students. None of them have taken a seminar-style class before. Therefore, how much participation actually occurs depends a lot on class dynamics and my ability to encourage all the students to say something during class.

I also don't know what will capture the interest of each class. In some classes, the discussion just flows naturally because enough students are interested and ask questions, or I ask them questions that stimulate discussion. In other classes, I end up talking for more time than I want to or should.

It is easy to 'over-prepare' for a shorter class, especially a lecture-format class -- e.g., have in mind other topics to discuss or examples to go over or additional images to show. It is more difficult to do that for a 2-hour class, especially one with a somewhat nebulous format.

Walking to class this morning, I was frantically trying to think of additional topics to bring up should the discussion fall flat, but I needn't have worried. With very few exceptions, the students had a lot of interesting comments and questions, and I was very surprised when I glanced at the clock and saw that only 5 minutes remained of the class (just enough time to talk about the plan for next week).

Next week I will probably have the same pre-class anxieties about time, as the class dynamic is a complex function of the weather, time of year, weekend activities, success/failure of the local sports teams, and perhaps many other variables I do not want to know about, but so far so good.


Mr. B. said...


I'm doing what you describe right now.

1. Do you take a break? Ten minutes at a convenient time.

2. Have you thought about giving (short) papers in the topic areas of interest for class discussion. This helps to get them involved and you can also give experienced advice about reading scientific papers.

Ciao, Bonzo

Anonymous said...

I have taught 2 hour classes as well, but to upper-division undergrads and 1st year grad students. This is in the physical sciences.

I usually incorporate some group problem solving. At the beginning of the term I tell students that many classes will include the students getting into groups of 3 (or so) and solving a problem. I will circulate through the room and help them along and discuss their work. At the end of some specified period of time, one student from the group will present the problem to the class. I make the expectations very clear right on the first day of class to kind of ease them into it.


+ I get a chance to work individually with students and get a feel for how they're doing with material.

+ Students get some practice with the kinds of problems that will be on subsequent homework sets. They also get a chance to use the methods and concepts that were introduced at the beginning of class.

+ Students have the chance to ask questions in a more non-threatening environment.

+ After some initial hesitation at th beginning of the term, the end of term student evaluations always express how helpful the students thought this aspect of the class was.

+ It breaks up the monotony of a 2 hour block and encourages some real thinking. And it is fun.


- It requires effort to create more problems and solutions.

- It requires energy and can be a bit exhausting.

- It probably only works for the class sizes I've done it with: ~30 students.

Ianqui said...

Two hours--I wish! Our long classes meet for 2 hrs 45 mins! I totally understand the "what the hell am I going to do for so long?" feeling.

Phiala said...

Heh. I taught intro biology for nonmajors for a while at a Large State School. This class met for six hours on Saturday afternoon, with 3 hours of lecture and 3 hours of lab. With a room full of inadequately prepared students who hadn't thought about biology at all for the past week.

I drank heavily on Saturday evenings. I also don't teach any more. (Well, okay, not because of that, and I do rather miss teaching.)

We did a lot of in-class activities, group projects, discussion of news articles, and such. Let's face it, I can talk for three hours if I have to, but nobody can listen that long! I think the activities helped the important concepts stick in the minds of not-so-interested students as well. (With some glaring exceptions, which are now quite funny but weren't at the time.)

Today's Chronicle jobs article
has some teaching tips, including one about encouraging successful discussions.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous. When teaching two hour classes I typically do 50 minutes lecture followed by a coffee break for me and group work for them. When I come back someone has to present their solution. We discuss it and then I get back to the lecture. I have done this with graduate, fourth and second year classes to differing degrees of success.


Anonymous said...

Try teaching ENG101 for 1.5 hours - how many different ways can I explain the writing of an essay? Honestly, I could teach the entire semester in 15 minutes - this is agony!