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What is the smallest reasonable amount of time needed to prepare lectures?

I have recently learned that professors at my university (in UK) don't know who is going to teach one of the new modules starting in October. They say they sometimes aren't allocated until a few weeks before the semester starts. It shows.

I think it should take a couple of months to write lecture notes and prepare everything. I think this explain why so many lecturers use so much poor quality half-cooked material (typos, non-sequiturs) and I can't always blame them.

Is this normal? Are all universities like this? Shouldn't professors refuse to accept a module if they haven't been given a sufficient amount of time to prepare?

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    In my corner of the world, one doesn't typically need to prepare lecture notes for a class. So, this reduces the time needed to prepare a class. And with a bit of experience, a few days of advance can be enough.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 23 at 21:51
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    Could you argue a little more on "new module"? Is this a course that has never been taught before at your university? Is it one for which standard teaching material is already available? May 23 at 21:59
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    @AzorAhai-him- I interpret lecture notes as a text to be given to the class, something less cleaned up than a book, but still a text. I wouldn't consider this necessary for a class, as I wouldn't consider slides necessary either: blackboards or graphic tablets can well be used without the need of having slides in advance.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 23 at 22:58
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    @AzorAhai-him-: To expand on Massimo Ortolano's comment: in my corner of the world (which is a few hundred kilometers away from his) it is completely common to give, for instance, maths lectures on blackboards. Some lecturers have typed lectures notes which they give to the students, others don't. Giving a maths lecture on a topic which you know very well and only using the blackboard does not require particularly much preparation for experienced lecturers. May 23 at 23:07
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    I'd say 5 minutes is not reasonable, and neither is 10 years, but I'm not sure we will agree on what is least reasonable. May 24 at 6:37

5 Answers 5

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Many academics in the UK believe that the workload allocation models applied in many universities are broken and do not reflect the true time required to perform academic duties, forcing staff to work evenings and weekends to stay on top of their marking and preparation of lectures. This is one of four fights in a dispute between the Universities UK (representing employers) and the University and College Union (representing staff). The dispute has been ongoing for several years now and has resulted in quite a few strikes and actions short of striking, such as assessment boycotts, etc.

In some universities in the UK where I worked, the amount of time allocated to create teaching materials was about 2 hours of preparation per 1 contact hour of teaching. Modules typically have ~30 contact hours, so you get 60 hours (1.5 weeks) to prepare everything for your students. This includes typeset lecture notes, problem sheets and answers to them, mock exam questions and fully worked out solutions. Everything needs to be provided via some online system, and departments usually monitor the quality of teaching materials. Unlike in some EU countries, in the UK students typically expect learning materials to be provided to enable them to learn even without attending some (or all) of the classes. You can deliver a blackboard lecture, but you will be asked to provide typeset lecture notes afterwards.

For me, personally, it usually takes about 3 months to prepare the first draft of the materials which I am not completely ashamed of.

The inadequate workload allocation models put a very severe pressure on academic staff. Some better departments manage it by giving the same modules to the same academics for several years in a row, making it possible to maintain and improve materials little by little. Some less organised departments suffer from high staff turnover and (re)allocate modules at the last moment each year, as you described in your question. In this case academics have no motivation to put extra time to prepare good materials, because next year they may be given a completely new module again. Students complain, managers react by putting more pressure on staff, academics burn out and leave, turnover increases and the process spirals down.

Is this normal?

Disorganised departments and poor admin practices in academia are not normal, but also not uncommon in the UK, as evidenced by the UCU dispute ongoing for several years all across the UK.

Are all universities like this?

No, there are still quite a few good ones. The marketization of higher education in the UK continues though.

Shouldn't professors refuse to accept a module if they haven't been given a sufficient amount of time to prepare?

Some may try to cause trouble, but this is not going to be popular with their Heads of Departments. However, academics can't refuse to teach a module or to take an admin role if it is within their "capacity" as per the workload model approved for use in their Department / University. Needless to say, the people who approve this model are mostly administrators and managers, not common professors and lecturers. Many professors do not agree with the workload model approved by admin/managers in their University, as evidenced by the ongoing national dispute.

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    Some places will double the time available if its a new module (so 4 hours per 1 hour contact). Its also worth noting that many places will expect that 4 hours is little enough time that if you are teaching 2 or 3 times a week, it will be expected that you can create the material as you go, so zero notice is required. May 24 at 8:25
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    @IanSudbery that of course is true, but it implicitly assumes that mapping the syllabus (such as it is) onto the available lecture slots, taking into account preliminary material, is and instantaneous process - and certainly not an iterative one. By iterative I mean that you realise you need to insert some more material earlier in the course so the students can understand a key section; you may also be waiting on confirmation of whether they've been taught it before
    – Chris H
    May 24 at 11:49
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    @SomeStudent If you want that, you need to complain the people who decide our schedules for us. May 24 at 12:37
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    "...in the UK students typically expect learning materials to be provided to enable them to learn even without attending some (or all) of the classes.": It is worth noting that some institutions interpretations of the UK Disabilities Act, as applied to universities, is that it's a legal requirement to provide the material in advance. Some places would say "in advance" means "before the start of the semester". Depending on the power of these interpretations in a particular institution, the flexibility to iterate or modify material as you go can be significantly reduced.
    – Ian
    May 24 at 17:47
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    'you get 60 hours to prepare everything' - Well, you get told that you should find 60 hours to prepare everything; nobody will help you clear your diary!
    – avid
    May 25 at 14:05
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There really isn't a minimal time. Things happen. Solutions are needed. People resign, get sick, die. Courses are required. Someone has to cover. It isn't ideal, but it is common enough.

Getting as long as a semester/term of prior notice is quite good and probably the target aimed for most places, but picking up a course in the middle of a term also happens.

In tight cases the notes and such of the last person to teach the course may be available for a quick start. But new courses also come along. Hopefully some advance planning is done in that case.

The first time a person teaches a course they might do so day to day and week to week. It isn't ideal. But, even in the case in which you have lead time, the first run of a course can be painful for everyone. Professors can/will misunderstand the proper level of understanding of entering students. They will pitch the lectures to the wrong level. Require too much or too little. But then, the first time you do lots of things you are likely to be less than perfect at it.

This can be further compounded if teaching isn't the first priority of an institution or a professor.

So, a certain amount of muddling through is expected, but it is also expected that things will improve. It is also best if professors are flexible in how they do things, what they require, and how they assess student work.

It isn't quite as chaotic as the above might imply. Most professors tend to teach the same courses year after year, relying on past experience. Or a couple/few of professors will swap off courses to get a bit of variety, but still with a lot of experience backing it up.

In my experience, the number of people who have a course completely "in the can" for the first offering are pretty rare. I've known one, I think.

For someone who has to teach a course for the first time with little lead time, I recommend that they first focus on student tasks, assignments, projects, exam coverage. Then fit other things to enable student success in those things primarily. Save time in daily schedules for student questions so that you can zero in on the appropriate level.

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  • As newfound manager of an academic unit I can fully support this answer. Nobody thinks it's ideal to assign a course without at least a few months of advance notice, but stuff happens (more than you would imagine) and then the problem needs to be resolved somehow.
    – xLeitix
    May 25 at 13:50
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Not as long an answer as some of the others, just a point to keep in mind: When you've taught a course a number of times, the time necessary to prepare for a class is not particularly large. I can now roll out of bed, take a five-minute look at my notes for the next class period of my Partial Differential Equations course, and be in my classroom at 8am knowing what I'm going to talk about for the next 75 minutes -- and nobody would know that 5 minutes is all that it took to prepare. Of course that's because I've taught this course or a variation a good half dozen times over the past decade.

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The amount of time you'll need to prepare depends on whether it's a class you've taught before and on whether it comes with some existing course materials including lecture slides and assignments used in previous terms. That's four combinations and I've done the three that make sense. (If you've taught it before, we can assume you still have your materials.)

If I have a lecture in the afternoon for a a class I've taught several times, I'll likely still spend most of the morning leisurely preparing. I'm always looking for ways to improve my slides and it's easy and pleasant to keep polishing.

If it's a class I've never taught (often called a new start) and I'm given some existing materials, I will watch videos of previous lectures if available and I will likely edit the slides for style or to improve the graphics, but I'm going to hold off making serious changes to the content until the next time, when my opinion might be backed by some experience with the course. I'm probably going to need to do some research on some points raised in the lectures that are new to me. I'm very likely to need to do all the homework assignments and read the textbook so I'm prepared for office hours. For me, this could be about a day of preparation per lecture, plus the weekend for the homework and reading. It's a lot more work.

If it's a new start and there are no existing materials, this is consuming! There are simply not enough hours in the day to do this really well the first time, so you will just have to do your best. It's helpful if you can pick a textbook that comes with instructor materials, but often those are very rough, just the images or tables in the book, not usually a set of finished lecture slides.

If you don't even have a text with some instructor materials and you're simply creating the course from thin air as you go, wow! The first time I taught my search engine class at University of Michigan, where students worked in teams of 6 to build a whole internet search engine in C++, I needed to create and deliver two two-hour lectures every week. All I had going in was a two-page syllabus I'd written, so it was like a death march. I got through it and so did my students, and the course got better each time after that. But the first time took every waking moment.

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Least reasonable time to prepare for a lecture will depend on many variables such as your level of experience teaching that subject, what subject it is, what you plan to include in your presentation (slides, writing on whiteboard, online-could involve quizzes, etc) and your audience (1st, 2nd, 3rd yr, postgrad, etc).

I delivered university lectures online and face-to-face for the first time over the pandemic using zoom to a group of masters students. The subject was in the biological sciences and involved a combination of formal lectures with slides (lots of pictures), online quizzes and some group tasks. It took me between 4-7hrs to prepare as I was starting from scratch. If I was to deliver the same lecture now, I would only have to glance through the slides for a few minutes and I'll be ok.

If the subject was mathematics, it could take just as long or even longer to prepare as I would have to ensure I've gone through the calculations before attempting it in front of a class. I would imagine most professors are very experienced lecturers and perhaps won't need that much time to prepare provided its a course they're familiar with.

I have to say that teaching generally doesn't get the attention and priority that it deserves amongst UK universities (I'm not sure about elsewhere). From my experience of being a student and now a lecturer, not every lecturer has received formal training in teaching/lecturing and certainly not every academic has the aptitude to be a good lecturer. Academics are overwhelmed with work and this may reflect on the quality of teaching.

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    I inherited a computer science class (US community college), so I had a general outline of the topics, but wrote my lectures and labs from scratch. Lectures were 10-30 minutes and labs were 2-4 hours for my students (once per week). The first semester I was spending 10-15 hours just on creating the content, not to mention grading/creating midterms/office hours. Second semester I had to spend ~1 hour revising my labs based on feedback from the year before. Third semester I could roll out of bed and teach it no problem. May 25 at 13:32

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