On Time in Teaching

Timing is one of the hardest parts of teaching. At the very beginning of lesson planning, I sometimes have the fear that I cannot fill the time, but my more common problem is having too much content and too little time. I’ve learned to plan my timing down to five-minute increments, to hold a pause for questions far longer than I would like, and to set expectations and then set a visible timer.

When I write or revise my class plans, I mark the parts of the plan with time limits, rounded to the nearest five minutes. Normally, I think it’s good practice to engage in a bit of mental math, but any brain power I take away doing calculations in my head is brain power I’m not using to teach clearly, and the risk of errors is frustrating. While it’s easy to calculate that if class ends at 11:35 and it is now 11:25, I have five minutes remaining, it’s far harder to puzzle out how many minutes are left if class started at 10:40, and I did one five minute exercise followed by a twenty-five minute exercise followed by a ten minute exercise followed by a five minute exercise, so we’re forty-five minutes in but we started twenty minutes before the hour so take the twenty from forty-five and, wait, what was the question again? So my lesson plan says things like Introduction (five minutes), In-Class Exercise (twenty-five minutes) and I’ve learned to go one step further and annotate them as Introduction (10:40-10:45), In-Class Exercise (10:45-11:10) It takes very little preparatory work, and while I may not use these notes nine times out of ten, the tenth time pays for all.

If I’m teaching the same class twice, I’ll make myself a chart with the timing for both classes:

I’ve also learned that whenever I ask, “any questions?” I have to hold the silence until it feels awkward. This can feel at odds with my careful timing plan, but the only way to really capture all the questions is to give students enough time to digest and formulate a question. Sure, some students pop right up with a question when asked, but some of those weren’t really listening, they were mulling over their question as I was speaking. I want to be sure the ones who were listening to me with their full concentration also get a chance to pose a question.

Finally, I have learned that when I am asking students to work on something requiring focus, it’s helpful to give them a timer that they can see. It’s not a panacea, but it seems to be just the edge my students need to stay focused.

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