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Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors
GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Pre-Semester Preparation

Time Management Strategies

Sarah Macdonald, PhD Candidate, Sociology

For many first-time as well as seasoned GSIs, time management can be a huge issue. GSIs often ask themselves, “How in the world will I ever find enough time to teach, study, write, and have a social life?” This Teaching Guide section suggests practical strategies that you can employ to manage the amount of time you allot for GSI-related tasks. You will benefit by thinking about time management techniques before you begin and throughout the semester.

GSI appointments are overseen by the Graduate Division and are covered by a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW. (See the Graduate Division handout What You Need to Know about Being a GSI, GSR, Reader, or Tutor. See also the union contract.) If you are hired to work half-time (most GSI appointments are half-time, though lower-percentage appointments do exist), you will be expected to work an average of 20 hours per week during the full term of your appointment as stipulated in your appointment letter. Your letter of appointment or supplemental documentation should outline your duties.

A rough example of how GSI time might be distributed follows:

  • Lecture attendance = 3 hrs.
  • Office hours = 2 hrs.
  • Meeting with instructor and GSIs = 1 hr.
  • Section or lab = 2–4 hrs.
  • Reading course material, preparing lesson plans,
    creating handouts and assignments, grading, and
    responding to student emails = 10–12 hrs.

Note: GSIs are responsible for talking with the course instructor or supervisor as soon as they anticipate any workload-related issues that would result in working more than their assigned hours so that adjustments can be made.

The following are some practical strategies that you can use to manage your time effectively.

General Strategies for Time Management

  1. Make Weekly and Daily Schedules. Allot particular times of the day to complete GSI-related activities. Try to complete all of the activities during these allotted times. It is wise to start making these schedules before the start of the semester.
  2. Keep a Teaching Log that Tracks How You Spend Your Time. As you prepare for the beginning of the semester, start writing down in a journal the amount of time you spend on GSI duties. You may find that you are spending too many hours per week answering student emails, meeting with students outside of class and office hours, grading, or writing elaborate homework assignments. The log will also help you reflect on which activities are the most and least effective. Once you identify the activities that eat up excessive amounts of time, you can figure out how to reduce the time you spend on these activities. (For example, stop writing lengthy responses to each question students send you over email, or make simple review sheets rather than elaborate sheets with beautiful graphics, three-dimensional diagrams, text boxes, and annotated bibliographies).
  3. Cooperate and Collaborate. GSIs are not lone rangers; you have numerous resources you can tap into for help. Many of the following resources can assist you in managing your time.
    1. Experienced GSIs often have lesson plans, assignments, handouts, and copious tips that they would love to share with current GSIs. Take advantage of this valuable resource!
    2. If your department has files for courses, pull lesson plans and other documents to use or modify. Make a folder of course-related documents to use during the present and future semesters. (Remember that you may teach this course again.) Pass along a copy of the folder to other GSIs when you are through with it. Save your work for your teaching portfolio.
    3. Meet regularly with the other GSIs for the class, and divvy up work on lesson plans, assignments, handouts, grading rubrics, review sheets, etc. Ask the other GSIs what they are doing to manage their time (if they are managing their time successfully).
    4. Seek out advice about time-effective teaching strategies by making an appointment with a teaching consultant at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.
  4. Teaching Style. GSIs are facilitators of student learning rather than lecturers. Writing lectures can be very time consuming. While you must prepare short presentations or lectures periodically to provide background information and clarify issues, you need not feed information to students. Preparing group activities rather than lectures saves time and increases student participation in the learning process.
  5. Keep Accurate and Organized Records. Think in advance about the system you will use (e.g., paper printout or electronic spreadsheet) to keep track of students’ attendance, participation, and grades. These files will help you stay organized throughout the semester. In addition, you can refer to these files when students inquire about their progress in section. Though it does not happen often, you may become involved in a grade dispute at one time or another as a GSI. Maintaining good records will help you respond in a professional manner and will minimize the stress that such a situation can cause.

Preparing for and Leading Section

  1. Send out reading questions to your students a few days before section. It will help them to be prepared and will save you time in lesson planning because you will have identified the important points ahead of time.
  2. Figure out how much time you need to plan a good section, then time yourself and stick to a set amount of time when planning each lesson.
  3. Have students sign up for days when they will be on call and responsible for being able to answer some question or summarize the main points of a reading. This takes some of the pressure off of you and also gives the students a structured way to participate in section.

Email and Communication

  1. Clearly communicate your policy on responding to email messages to your students.
  2. Establish set times for responding to emails, so that you do not spend more time than allotted on responding to student queries. Let students know that you will only respond to emails once a day.
  3. Set up a separate email address where students can email you. Only check this email when you plan to respond to student emails. Be clear with your students about when you will be available, how often you check your email, and how much time they should allow for you to get back to them.
  4. Give students a deadline for sending questions electronically before exams and assignments. Let them know when you will stop responding to emails.
  5. If a number of students email questions that are similar in nature, send one response out to a group of students, or if appropriate to the whole class. This will help you to avoid having to repeatedly answer the same question.
  6. Consider answering some questions in section instead of through email. This is especially important for common questions or more complex questions that may be of concern to many students.
  7. Set up a bSpace forum for students to post questions to each other. Give them participation credit for posting and answering questions on the forum. This works especially well around exam time.
  8. Be clear with students about what kinds of questions (e.g., administrative inquiries) are appropriate for email and what kinds of questions are more appropriate for class or office hours (more complicated substantive questions about course material).
  9. Refer students to the course website or course syllabus if they have questions that can be answered by those materials.
  10. Phone conversations often take less time than email exchanges. If your office has a phone, consider having students call you during office hours or at a set time when you’ll be in your office (provided your office has a land-line). Again, we recommend that GSIs not provide students with home or cell numbers.

Office Hours

  1. If your department allows it, schedule one office hour by appointment. There will always be students who cannot make your office hours because of some other commitment. Having an office hour by appointment gives you built-in time to set up appointments with students. Some weeks you will have no students that need to see you by appointment and you can save up these extra hours to use around exam/assignment time.
  2. Have open office hours during times when not many students are likely to show up, but have sign-ups for office hours during busy times during the semester to make sure everyone has a chance to see you.
  3. Remind students at the beginning of scheduled office hour appointments how much time you have before the next student arrives. This will help your students prioritize their questions.
  4. Try to schedule your office hours so that they overlap with two class periods, e.g., 1:30–2:30. This means that more students will be able to meet with you.
  5. Have office hours at different times on different days so that the maximum number of students can attend scheduled office hours. This policy helps reduce the number of appointments GSIs make to accommodate students who cannot attend regularly scheduled office hours. Some GSIs determine their office hours after asking students about their availability.
  6. While your office hours should primarily be devoted to meeting with students, GSIs can save time by working on GSI-related tasks between student visits during office hours. Make sure you always have something course-related with you in case not many students show up and you have extra time.
  7. Be clear with students about what types of questions are appropriate for office hours and what types of questions are better answered in class or via email.
  8. Be clear about the purpose of office hours and what students can expect of you. For example, will you read drafts in office hours? Are you willing to meet with groups of students during office hours?

For further suggestions about making use of office hours, see Questions for Students in Office Hours.

Preparing for Exams, Assignments, and Review Sessions

  1. Instead of preparing a lesson plan for review sessions from scratch, solicit student questions about what they are still having difficulty with and use them as a basis for review sessions.
  2. Consider running review sessions with another GSI to save in preparation time.
  3. Find out in advance about upcoming exams and assignment details. This can help to give you an idea of which parts of the semester will be most work-intensive.
  4. Plan to allot more of your GSI time to office hours around exams and assignment due dates. Consider having students sign up for office hours ahead of time or have them attend in small groups to save time.
  5. Go over assignment prompts with the entire class to avoid too many individual questions over email.
  6. Consider making peer review either required or optional; some of the smaller problems with papers can be solved by other students.
  7. Consider giving your students a checklist to hand in with their papers or assignments to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything.

Grading

  1. Discourage late assignments by deducting points for unexcused late assignments and by not accepting late papers after specified dates. It is very time-consuming to grade papers that continually trickle in throughout the semester.
  2. Together with the professor and fellow GSIs, create and use a grading rubric to facilitate effective and efficient grading. This will help you focus your written comments on the major objectives of the assignment or question, ensure fairness, and minimize grade challenges.
  3. Grade disputes will be kept at a minimum if you use a grading rubric and outline grading policies. Keeping a specific protocol for disputes, including having students present their disputes in writing before coming to see you, will enable you to put limits on the amount of time this entails.
  4. Develop and borrow from other GSIs’ repertoires of responses to student work and consider typing your comments so that you can cut and paste comments that are applicable to several students. GSIs tend to address similar issues when assessing students’ papers, exams, lab reports, and homework. GSIs who have a set of responses for common errors (e.g., unclear thesis statements, poor organization of lab reports, and awkward sentence constructions) save valuable time when grading.
  5. Grade with other GSIs. It makes the work more fun and it is easier to pace yourself when you are grading with someone else.
  6. Ask the professor with whom you are teaching how much time it should take you to grade each paper and how detailed he or she expects your comments to be on exams and papers. Make sure that you are not spending too much time or writing too many comments.
  7. Once you have determined the amount of time you will spend on each paper, time yourself. You can give yourself a certain amount of time to grade one paper (e.g., 15 minutes) and then begin writing comments five minutes before the end of time. Another alternative is to give yourself a certain amount of time to grade multiple papers as some papers will take more or less time to grade (e.g., 60 minutes for four papers).
  8. For assignments or exams with lengthy problems or essay questions, grade a single question on all of the exams before moving on to the next question.
  9. If it is allowed, split up the grading and consider having each GSI grade the same one or two questions on all the exams in the class instead of each person grading the entire exam. Debrief together so that all of you know the common problems students had on all the questions.

For further suggestions about grading, see the Grading Student Work section of the Teaching Guide.

Final Comments on Time Management

Remember that professors and students do not expect you to be the absolute master of the material you teach, especially in the first semester. They expect you to be prepared, organized, relatively energetic, and helpful. However, you do not have to spend countless hours studying until you have an exhaustive command of the course material. While it is important to prepare thoroughly for section, over-preparation is counter-productive and extremely time consuming.

That said, don’t stint on reflecting upon your teaching experiences — it can actually save you some time. According to a 1991 study by Robert Boice entitled “Quick Starters: Faculty who Succeed,” spending time reflecting on and talking with other teachers about teaching decreases, rather than increases, the amount of time spent on teaching. So, try meeting regularly with other GSIs and professors to discuss teaching issues, and participate in pedagogical workshops and other teaching-related forums. The minimal time you devote to these activities will help you become a more effective and efficient teacher, and free up time for other aspects of your academic and personal life.

For many GSIs, the first couple of semesters can be overwhelming and take up considerable time. Rest assured that teaching becomes much more manageable and enjoyable with experience.

Employing the strategies outlined above or a Time Management Worksheet (pdf) will assist you in this process.

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