Ideas to Reduce Non-Classroom Prep Time Without Reducing Teaching Quality

Collated and prepared by Robert Krider, ISTLD Dewey Fellow and Professor, Beedie School of Business

Time is that quality of nature which keeps events from happening all at once. Lately it doesn’t seem to be working. — Anonymous

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the academic literature on how to spend less time on teaching without sacrificing student learning.  Advice, however, does exist, both online and in the heads of experienced university teachers.

This is summary of sources and some extracted suggestions. Not all these suggestions will make sense for all people and all courses.  Pick and Choose!

The Most Common Generic Piece of Advice

Avoid lecturing. If you are a riveting storyteller and can easily keep an audience enthralled for hours, ignore this. You are rare, but I know you exist. And if you are really uncomfortable with the spontaneous interaction with students that non-lecturing techniques require, also ignore this.

Dozens of non-lecturing techniques exist, but they are always presented as means to improve student learning, not to reduce your workload. Many of them, however, do just that, especially after the first iteration. Developing classes with complex paradigms such as the “flipped classroom” will take a lot of development work the first time around, but can be a big time-save in subsequent iterations. Of course, the same can be said of developing lectures. Which is easiest is dependent on the individual.

 One Relevant Book

Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (nothing in excess). Robert Boice. 2000.

This book pops up in repeatedly in discussions of teaching efficiency, with high praise. It does not quite qualify as offering quick tips and tricks, rather focuses more on learning attitudes such as mindfulness, so I will merely refer you to it and not attempt to summarize.  It claims to provide empirically established effective methods, with the exact goal that we are interested in:   

“By following its practical, easy-to-use rules, novice faculty can learn to teach with the highest levels of student approval, involvement, and comprehension, with only modest preparation times and a greater reliance on spontaneity and student participation.”

A Common Piece of Advice from Several Sources on Class Prep Time

Class prep fills the time you make available for it. Several online sources, as well as personal communication with experienced teachers, recommend setting a fixed length of time for class prep just before the class. If you start prepping three days before, you will likely use the full three days to prep. If you really need that much time, fine. But experiment with starting later and keep in mind diminishing marginal returns. Once you’re prepped to an OK level, don’t waste time prepping to a perfect level. Once a course has been taught several times, you might get to the point of starting your prep ten minutes before class. In his study of successful faculty, Robert Boice (see above) found that, after their first time teaching a course, successful new professors spent no more than 1 to 1.5 hours of course preparation per lecture hour.

Notes on Teaching Efficiently (Robert Runte)

A few key points, paraphrased:

  • New Course Preps: Do not volunteer to teach more new courses than absolutely necessary.  New course prep takes time. When you do a new course prep, make sure you document the effort and include it in your teaching dossier for review, tenure, and promotion. If the course has been taught by someone previously, use as much of their material as possible. (You usually won’t be able to use it all—you will likely need to adjust for your own interest and perspective). If you will be teaching a course in the future that someone else is currently teaching, sit in on at least the first class.
  • In anticipating repeating courses: Make lesson plans and save them, referencing all material used. After each class immediately self-debrief and make notes for the next time around. You might even keep a separate document titled “Next Time Around”. Try to arrange to teach multiple sections of the same course in a term, rather than multiple courses.
  • Outside of class communication: If possible schedule office hours at times (e.g. 8 a.m.) that cut down on frivolous visits. Extended office hours may be needed at peak times. Email may be a substitute for office hours. Establish a response time (24, 48, 72 hours) to manage expectations. Train students to put the course number in the subject line and put a filter on your email client to route them to a separate folder.
  • Evaluation: Use multiple choice as much as possible. “For most knowledge objectives, well-constructed mc questions are generally more valid and reliable measures of student achievement than essay questions; and when properly constructed, can test the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy.” Good questions are time-consuming to write, so are most appropriate for large classes. Test banks are helpful, but as part of each after-class self-debrief, write 3 or 4 mc questions of your own. Of course, we want to re-use questions, so all the appropriate precautions need to be taken. For essay questions rubrics are useful for efficient marking. Constructing good rubrics is a whole other, large, difficult issue!
  • Feedback: Make as many positive as negative comments. Keep the negative comments focused on the biggest issues. If there are many smaller issues make a generic comment, or ignore them. One interesting possibility is two deadlines—students choose one or the other:  “Assignments handed in by the first deadline are guaranteed written feedback. Assignments handed in by the second, later deadline are accepted and graded, but forfeit written feedback. Many students will avail themselves of the later deadline.”
  • Course Evaluations: If you insist on reading student comments on your course evaluations, keep in mind that they violate basic rules of good data collection and analysis, and are usually of limited value. Only if there are majority negative comments on the same theme, and correction is not terribly onerous, should you consider investing in modifying the course. Some comments may be simply dealt with by making a more specific course outline, and laying out policy in the first class.

A Blog from Tanya Bolza (UC Merced)

Two selected ideas:

Tip #1: Teach classes as closely related to your research as possible.

Tip #2: Keep lectures to a minimum.

The notion here is that prepping lectures is more time consuming than prepping activities, discussions, etc.  This is a suggestion that may not be for everyone.  And by itself it isn’t a very useful “tip” as there are many, many ways to avoid lecturing and some can be quite prep-intensive. We’ll include it here, though, as an encouragement to be alert for non-lecturing and time-saving opportunities.

Dr. Bolza elaborates in a related post:

Tip #6: Engage the students in discussion from the first day of class.
As I said above, I rarely lecture, and when I do, my lectures are short. Once I have finished conveying information to students, I ask them a series of questions. My class preparation thus involves preparing a short lecture, and then preparing a list of questions to ask students. I go through the questions, asking them one by one. Sometimes it becomes clear that I need to clarify certain points, so I may move back into a brief lecture. Other times students may take class in a direction I had not anticipated, so I try and bring them around. Either way, a discussion-based class is more engaging and requires less preparation than preparing and practicing an hour-long lecture.

As mentioned, previously, one popular way to avoid lecturing is the flipped classroom – but takes a lot of prep the first time around, and some fine-tuning the second time. In subsequent iterations though, it can make for a near-zero prep class.  Here are “Five Time-Saving Ideas for the Flipped Classroom”

The Three Most Time-efficient Teaching Practices

The focus in this article is on course design, with the notion that upfront investment in careful course design saves time later. One very relevant point that profs need to be reminded of regarding how students learn and why it is important to generate criteria or rubrics to describe disciplinary work for students: “As faculty we may have forgotten what it was like to be a novice learner in our field (a phenomenon known as expert blind spot), or we may have been more intuitive about these processes even as students. In all likelihood, we faculty were not representative of the other students in classes with us at the time. We are a self-selected group that shares little in common with the vast and diverse array of contemporary students. Providing students with criteria or rubrics gives them a glimpse into the way that we think.”   

Let’s be honest:  designing rubrics that result in quicker grading is not easy.  (But wouldn’t you jump at a workshop that was sold as rubrics-for-faster-grading?)

Managing Multiple Teaching Assistants (TAs) in Large Classes

1.     Give them some freedom in deciding what to do in their tutorials

2.     Provide detailed guidelines at the beginning of the semester

Good TA’s (generally A students who recently took the class) can be given some latitude in what they want to do in their tutorials. They may even have a better idea how to approach a topic than you do, as they are much closer to the student experience. Decide what you really need them to do in the tutorials, and leave the rest up to them. I have found that most excel when given the opportunity, and often will develop new, good, reusable materials on their own. They will love you for the opportunity, their students will love them for their engagement with the material, and you will have time to publish.

Providing a detailed guideline at the beginning of the semester will save time later, and as issues arise, make changes to the guidelines for the next class. Aside from the obvious detailing of expected duties, especially in the intense period at the end of the term,

  • encourage them to approach their tutorials as facilitators, not as experts. They aren’t!
  • outline how to handle grading complaints: a) be prepared to defend grading, but consider the complaint as often they are justified c) contrary to common wisdom giving in on the odd case and raising a grade doesn’t usually generate a storm of challenges, provided it doesn’t happen often and is justified c) if the TA wishes to stand firm they can refer the student to you, with the warning that it could go either way.

This will effectively eliminate students coming to you with complaints.

Within a couple of iterations, you will have self-driving TA’s.

Large Class Final Grade Complaints: “Why did I only get a B?”

In large classes with somewhat arbitrary letter-grade cutoffs, you want to avoid getting to the point of a time-consuming appeal.  The following helps a lot and is quick. In your grade spreadsheet build a block of formulae that generates something like the following, and every time a student complains, just cut and paste it into that student’s row in the spreadsheet; then copy and paste it into the reply email:






Doe, John





Class Maximum





Class Median





Rank in Class:




Two Beedie Professors Graciously Provide Advice on Efficiency

Professor David Hannah:

“1.  I don't meet with students to discuss grades.  If a student wants to appeal a grade on an assignment, that appeal must be made in writing with an explanation, and the result of an appeal may be a grade being increased, staying the same, or decreasing.  This cuts down on students coming to my office just to appeal for higher grades.  It also makes a grade appeal a learning experience for students, because they must come up with a good explanation. (I do make it clear that this doesn't apply to black and white grading issues such as addition errors on a test, which they can simply bring to my attention.)

“2.  I put lots of work in up front when I first teach a course. I have a 5:3:1 ratio when I first teach a class: the first time I teach it I expect it to take 5x as long, the second time 3x as long, before the third time when it's where I want it to be. Rushing to prep a class the first time delays subsequent efficiencies.

“3.  As I've gained experience in teaching, I find I say less about less.  Instead, I use experiential learning and facilitate in-depth discussions and reflections.  This is more effective and less time-consuming than making sure I talk about everything in the book from Chapter 1-12.”


Professor Leyland Pitt, one of the most productive, efficient, and effective faculty members on the planet, graciously provided his tactics for effective and efficient teaching in case-based courses.  Not all of these will work for everyone; and some will be relevant in other types of courses.

“Remembering that I only teach MBAs and EMBAs (although I have used precisely the same approach when teaching the capstone undergrad Marketing Strategy course), and that I am almost exclusively a case teacher who lectures very little:

“ 1. Rather than have students write a written analysis of a case as a final assignment or exam, I have them prepare a PowerPoint presentation on the case, by setting the scenario that they have been invited by top management in the organization concerned in the case to do a presentation at a board meeting. I limit the number of slides they can use, usually about 12, maximum, and also warn them not to write essays on PowerPoint slides as people at the back of the room can’t read 12 pt. font. This approach has the following advantages:
a. It is realistic - managers in organizations today never get asked to write 30 page reports. Usually they are asked to do a short presentation on an issue and to stick to a time limit.
b. It really discriminates well between excellent and poor students. Poor students don’t like it because they feel it limits them - when in fact the real skill lies in being able to get to the point and get your arguments across effectively. Anyone should be able to do that in 30 pages; not everyone can do it well in 12 slides. Good students thrive on it because it challenges them to use clever devices to get their analysis across - diagrams, figures, models etc., graphs instead of tables for quantitative analysis.
c. It is far fairer on students for whom English is not a first language. I have no control over the university’s criteria for admitting students whose English language skills might be less than optimal. But I am also not an English teacher. and it is not my job to correct grammar. In this way I don’t discriminate against poor language skills. I am looking for core ideas and analysis, and all good students are capable of this regardless of whether their first language is English or not.
d. I NEVER have problems with plagiarism. I always choose a new case for these assignments that either one of my colleagues or I have written or a new Harvard case for which I know there is no teaching note. Exams are open book, and they can have internet access if they wish. They submit electronic PowerPoint presentations to me which eliminates the need for paper and makes administration really easy.
e. Grading is a LOT quicker and easier than reading written reports - I simply view the submissions as PowerPoint slide shows.

“2. With regard to the approach above, students really value feedback and we owe it to them. I either use the space in the “notes” section of a PowerPoint presentation as a way of giving written feedback, or better still, insert a sound file into their presentation in which I talk through what I like and what I don’t. The latter is quicker and easier than typing. And students comment on how warm and personal the feedback is!

“3. I very rarely have problems with class attendance and participation, which means I don’t have to waste my time worrying about it. I assign a large percentage of the final grade to class participation (25-30%), and students know that absence loses marks really quickly. Being there is a minimum requirement (it will earn about half the grade). I emphasize the value of participation by telling them that cases and class participation offer an excellent opportunity to develop and articulate a point of view. The ability to think on one’s feet and express an opinion are valuable skills that employers are seeking. I aggressively encourage punctuality, because this not only shows bad manners and a disregard for classmates and the instructor, it also causes disruptions to the class.

“4. I am confident in my own ability to grade class participation accurately and fairly, and it is a skill that I have nurtured by many years of practice. If I have the luxury of a TA for a course I try to have the TA sit in on class and grade class participation independently from my own. This ensures the students of fairness and also provides a check on my own class participation grading (which I do immediately after every class). The correlation between a TA’s grading and my own are always high (.0.8) and significant.  I very, very rarely have complaints about a class participation grade, and this obviously saves time and unpleasantness.

“5. Point 4 above means that students HAVE to have name plates in front of them in class. I make a point of very quickly learning first names - the easiest way of doing this is to look at the name and use it every time you talk to a student.

“6. I NEVER use group presentations on case studies. Good cases are far too complex and open-ended to enable a good presentation, and neither the students or I want to list to the same boring stuff many times over.

“7. When I do use group presentations I always let the students present on pretty much anything they’d like to. Freedom is both scary and welcomed, which really enhances creativity. This means that the presentations are almost universally good or excellent, and that none of us has to listen to the textbook being regurgitated in a way that anaesthetizes us all. Our students love the opportunity to be really creative, and to push the envelope. They, and more especially me, are always delighted at how much they learn from each other. Marketing is such a broad and constantly changing discipline that none of us are able to keep up with everything that is happening. With the brief that they can present on “anything they choose as long as its related at least tangentially to marketing", our students exceed all expectations and we all learn a LOT.”