Back to School Prep

If you’re like me, you hate those annoying ‘Back to School’ ads that start appearing on TV in late July.  What a way to ruin that little bit left of my summer – reminding me of the insanity that will descend on my life in early September.  But the majority rules and while many professors live in dread of the return to the 60+ hour work week that the fall term inevitably brings, the rest of the world awaits it eagerly because it means that the kids will be back in school and out of their hair.

To help you avoid the blues that these inevitable ‘Back to School’ ads tend to initiate, today’s post is all about how to prepare for fall so that you don’t end up in the teaching time-pit Yes, I am going to suggest you invest some time in teaching prep now, time that you will recover many times over later on.  These suggestions will not only save you time this fall – they will save you time every time you teach this course again.  Specifically, I’m suggesting you convert your courses to tablet-teaching.

Of course the ultimate time-saver is to put all of your course notes into PowerPoint and deliver them like conference presentations – an extremely boring approach termed “death by PowerPoint” by most students.  I’m certainly not encouraging that – in fact, if you’re doing it now – let me be the voice of sanity – stop now!  It’s cruel and it’s probably tanking your teaching ratings.

Tablet-teaching is something entirely different.  The idea is to provide the students (and you) with skeleton notes.  Sometimes they get only the bare bones and you build most of it together, as seen in the example below.

Other times – when there’s just a lot of writing to do – you get them to fill in the blanks, as seen in this example on the left.  The key is to have a mix of these so that they’re kept fairly busy.  Also, it’s important to incorporate lots of graphics, so that the slides are visually stimulating to the students.  In engineering that’s easy – a diagram or graph can always be useful in explaining a point, a method, or an example. However, it should be doable in most disciplines using a little bit of imagination.

There are a number of advantages to this, beyond the time saved by not hunting for and reviewing notes before each lecture.  First of all, you can reuse these electronic presentations each year (the main motivation for doing it in the first place) and updates are quick and easy.  Another advantage is that you can post PDF files of the completed notes on-line, so that students can go back and fill in anything they missed.  (I find it useful to make them non-printable so that students who have missed the class will actually fill in their own notes not just print mine.)  Because you can include photos, graphs, and even videos to illustrate the subject matter, your lectures will be more interesting to the students – that means they will learn more (not to mention they will give you better ratings).  It also means that you can cover more material, more quickly, leaving more time for examples – another thing that students love.   In the end – you will also have an electronic record of exactly what you covered in class, as will the students.

 Students love tablet-teaching for a bunch of reasons.  First of all, they don’t feel as rushed during the lectures, because they are not scrambling to get a ton of material down on paper.  They also pick up more of the content since they actually have time to listen and think during the class, yet they still have to pay close attention to get all the details down.  Students also like being able to see the completed notes on-line and they especially appreciate professors who use modern technology.

I used to waste tons of time cramming before every class – to refresh my memory on the topic content of the day.  Tablet-teaching saves me at least 30 minutes of prep time before each class.  Basically, the only prep I do now is to turn on my computer before I head off to the classroom.  In addition – I probably save another 20 -30 minutes per lecture, since I don’t have to fight with the photo-copier to get handouts ready at the last minute.  The blank notes are all posted on-line for the students to print for themselves – or printed in booklet form at the start of the term for the bookstore or student club to sell.  I also completely avoid time wasted when dealing with students who missed the class, or who have incomplete notes when it comes time to prep for the exam.  They can find everything they need on-line.

Of course, this “skeleton-notes” approach to teaching will be nothing new to many older professors.  When I was first teaching in the late 1980s – the most successful teachers in department were the professors who used skeleton notes prepared on overhead transparencies.  Students would rave about these profs – they loved the idea of having some of the course material provided and just fleshing out the rest during the lectures.  However, I found the overhead projector very hot to work with and always hated having to go back and clean off all of the transparencies after the fact.  Not to mention the graphics were all black and white.    Tablet-teaching allows us to take this great idea to heights our predecessors never imagined.

Of course the obvious downside to all of this is that it does take some time to prepare the slides.  If, like me, you foolishly tried the “death by PowerPoint” approach way back when computer projectors first became ubiquitous in classrooms, then you’ve got it made since you can just start stripping them down.  On the other hand, if you’re working from scratch, I suggest you start with a fairly bare framework and build up gradually.  Even if you have mostly blank slides, using a tablet computer instead of the board at least gives you a permanent record and a way to incorporate some interesting visuals.

Don’t have a tablet computer?  Well, you don’t necessarily need one – for example, you can use a pen mouse with your regular laptop when it comes time to fill in the blanks or annotate your presentation.  I’ve even used my iPad running Splashtop Streamer for this, though you really need an iPad stylus to do that and it will help to leave yourself a bit of room on the slides to write large as it’s not super precise.  There’s even a custom App from the same company called Splashtop Presenter  that is designed specifically for this purpose.  It costs 20 bucks, but that still a lot cheaper than a new tablet computer and there are a lot more features as well (including the Splashtop Streamer software). Although, I can’t personally attest to it’s performance, I will be giving it a try soon and will post an update once I do.  Another less expensive App for this same purpose is Slideshow Remote.  It’s only $5 so I’ll be checking it out first.

So – right now it’s about 7 weeks until the terms starts and it has typically taken me 4 or 5 weeks to convert an entire course to a dazzling set of skeleton slides.  If you don’t want to devote that much time to it, you can easily get a fairly decent bare-bones set ready in about 2 or 3 weeks, then gradually flesh it out a bit more each year.   Either way, if you start now – you’ll be laughing by the time those annoying ‘Back to School’ ads start and you’ll still have a few weeks left for a bit of vacation.   You might even have some time left over to finish that journal paper you’ve (not) been working on! 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Back to School Prep

  1. Pingback: Using Your First Years Efficiently: What I wish I’d known… | Help for New Professors

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