The Pros and Cons of Teaching Back-to-Back Sections

Honest reflections on teaching a compressed schedule.

Introduction

This semester I’m teaching four 50-minute sections of CIS236: Honors Introduction to Information Systems on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This is quite the change from previous semesters. In the past, I taught two consecutive 75-minute sections Monday through Thursday. In this post, I’ll describe some of pros and cons of teaching back-to-back sections.

Pros

My day is compressed. I typically arrive on campus around 9 a.m. for my 9:40 class. I like to walk into each class at least 15 minutes beforehand to set up my gear and talk to students. I have found that they appreciate it, especially when they need answers to simple questions and they didn’t want to use Slack. I then teach my first two sections, grab a quick lunch, hold my formal office hours, teach my last two sections, and head home around 2:50 p.m.

On a strictly personal level, this is very efficient. I largely avoid traffic, but that’s hardly the only benefit.

Much like a good standup comedian, to some extent I can practice material on my first section. In this way, I can squash bugs that would appear in future lectures. For instance, I can refine a slide, retire a joke that didn’t fly, or clarify a point or concept. (It turns out that successful comedians such as Chris Rock routinely do this. For more here, check out Little Bets [affiliate link].)

We professors are just like everyone else: We need to deal with change.

I doubt that I start out at my peak level. I also suspect that I’m at performing at best in my third class. By that point, I know what has worked before and what hasn’t. (I’m interested in what my student-evaluation data has to say about this at the end of the semester.)

Cons

CIS236 is a survey course and, by design, we cover a great deal of material very quickly. I often joke that it’s easier for me to list the topics that we don’t cover over the course of 14 weeks.

As a result, by the start of the fourth section at 2 p.m., I’m a little gassed and often need a 20-minute power nap when I get home. It reminds me of when I’d teach three- and four-day software classes at Lawson Software. I had to be “on” not only when I addressed the class, but during breaks as well. Attendees asked me rapid-fire questions and students do the same. In short, I didn’t have much time to recover and take a breath.

Tip: I find Oars and Alps Cooling + Cleansing Wipes (affiliate link) to be quite refreshing after my second section.

When I lecture, I use PowerPoint slides to communicate knowledge to my audience but also to keep me on track. I try hard not be stiff and often improvise how I make a point. Doing so helps keep the material fresh. (One of my new students already called me engaging and my early-semester evaluations were very positive.) At the same time, though, that approach comes with a cost because I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I occasionally forget if I mentioned something in this current section or the one before.

Simon Says: A compressed schedule is no picnic but it’s manageable.

My current teaching schedule isn’t objectively better or worse than its antecedents; it’s just different—and professors need to deal with change. I use Tuesdays and Thursdays to grade assignments and exams, prepare materials for future lectures, provide services for my clients, and recover.

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