This question is mostly out of curiosity (at least for the moment). I have never taught full courses but I have had to substitute many times, usually for graduate level courses. Preparing for a one hour lecture took me 2-6 hours.

I understand that full-time lecturers may be expected to teach 20 hours per week. I cannot imagine how one could find the time to prepare. How do they manage?

Also, what about a freshly hired lecturer? Teaching a course for the first time should take considerably more preparation, creating an extreme workload with 16-20 hours teaching per week.

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    Not an answer since I'm a grad student, but my understanding is that this is only possible once the courses have been prepared. That is, with all the materials in place and some practice, it might only take ~1 hour to prepare each hour of lecture.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 17:07
  • Is 20 contact hours a week a common full-time load? A 2-1 or 2-2 in a STEM field seems like a standard starting Assistant Professor teaching load which comes to 6 hours lecturing per week in the 2-course semesters. 20 lecture hours a week is 6.5 sections of a 3-hour course or 6.5 different classes! I don't think that's standard much of anywhere. Can you clarify, or did I do the math wrong?
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:49
  • @BillBarth I don't know. I would like to have reliable information on this. I have heard 16-20, but I don't have direct experience with it. I'm in a STEM field. This question mentions 20. I guess I'd have to ask a separate question for this.
    – Paracelsus
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 20:00
  • You seem to understand the challenge of teaching. Yes, it's a lot of work. Now you know what the standard "time allowance" for teachers (including primary and secondary school) is that for every hour of teaching, you are considered to have another 1 to 1.25 hours for "other" work (prep, marking, etc.). Clearly prep is going to consume WAY more than that at the start of a career.
    – earthling
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 8:01
  • @Paracelsus Since you referenced my question, I will simply add that in my part of the world, 16-20 hours of lecturing per week is extremely common for full time lecturers.
    – earthling
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 8:02

3 Answers 3


Two points:

  1. Preparing for a lower division course takes much less time than preparing than preparing for a graduate level course for several reasons. First, you presumably have much better knowledge of the material in the lower level course. Second, you tend to present material at a slower rate in a lower level course. Third, you should be using more active learning strategies (having the students do work in class) in a lower level course. I've found that although it takes an hour or two to prepare for an hour long class in one of my graduate courses, when I've needed to substitute in a lower division course (e.g. calculus) for an instructor who is out sick, I can typically prepare for the class in about a half hour.

  2. it's much easier to teach a class if you have taught the course in previous semesters, and its particularly easy if you're teaching multiple sections of the same course in a semester. So, an instructor with a four course teaching load might actually be teaching three sections of one course and one section of a second course. This is described as "four sections, with two preps."

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    Preparing for a lower division course takes much less time than preparing than preparing for a graduate level course — [citation needed] In my experience, preparing for a new lower-division course takes more time than preparing for a new upper-division course. Because you know the material better, it's considerably harder to figure out how to actually teach it well. Also, lower-level courses tend to be significantly larger, so any time you might save on preparation, you lose on course administration.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:12
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    @JeffE: "Any time you might save on preparation, you lose on course administration." Depends on the country. In Germany, professors rarely handle course administration issues beyond grades and handling oral exams.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:29
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    @aeismail So, in Germany, how do instructors communicate with teaching assistants? Who do students complain to when they don't like their grades, or when their grades are recorded incorrectly, or when a homework gets lost? Who finds replacements when an instructor (or a TA) is unexpectedly sick? Who tracks attendance? Who decides on grading rubrics? Who deals with cheating cases? Who records and reports grades?
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:43
  • 2
    @JeffE: The whole course grade is usually determined on the basis of the final exam. Typically the TA's will be responsible for most of the work, including the grading rubric, regrade requests, and so on. (For example, there is a "grade review" where students can request regrades by the TA's.) The professor has charge over approving the decisions, but is usually involved only in "high-level" decision making. It's much more hands off than the US system. Also, keep in mind that the teaching load of German professors is much higher: typically at least 9 class hours per week per semester.
    – aeismail
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 20:11
  • I did undergrad mathematics courses at Oxford where the lecturer had no involvement with students at all outside lectures. The lecturer would set a problem sheet, the students do the problems, the tutors (who are rather more than TAs, indeed some are full professors themselves) mark and give feedback. Of course nobody ever appeals a grade, and nobody cares if you cheat, since it's not part of the assessment for the degree. The person who taught the course may or may not be involved in the exams, up to 18 months later. But then, that's Oxford, nobody claims its teaching methods are cheap :-) Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 12:21

Lectures that are 20 hours/week are not year-round. A new lecturer who is supposed to start lecturing in a new topic in September might need all summer to prepare. If it takes 5 hours of preparation to do 1 hour of lecturing, 100 hours of lecturing takes 500 hours to prepare, or around 12–13 working weeks. That should give a decent head start. But even with a little bit of lecturing experience, it's going to take considerably less than 5 hours of preparation to lecture for 1 hour — and/or a new lecturer may need to spend more than 40 hours per week initially.

  • Are full-time lecturers usually paid for the summer months as well?
    – Paracelsus
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 17:54
  • @Paracelsus That would depend on the location and possibly the employer. I know that in Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, they certainly are, probably in other European countries as well. In the USA, maybe not. But where they are they might also be asked to contribute to summer courses. It's a different question.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 17:55
  • Of course the 5 hours are not usual (substituting in the middle of the semester meant that I had to spend time on the previous lectures as well), but I don't think I could go below 2 hours in the best case. Perhaps, as Brian Borchers said, undergrad courses are easier to teach.
    – Paracelsus
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 17:58
  • In the US, lecturers (and professors for that matter) are not paid for the summer unless they are working on research grants or teaching summer school. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 18:32
  • I regularly spend 5-8 hours in prep for every hour in class for a new subject. To revise the material each semester is much less but still something.
    – earthling
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 8:00

Brian makes good points - lower level courses take less time to prepare for than upper division courses, and there is an economy of scale - teaching multiple sections of the same course greatly reduces the overhead of preparation.

That said, the first time a lecturer teaches a course, the workload is very high - depending on the course content, between 1-3 hours of prep for each hour of lecture (for the first section) is normal (this is an average over a whole semester). So if you had 20 contact hours per week, and that was (for example) two sections each of two new courses, then your prep workload might be something like:

  • Course 1, Section 1 - 5 contact, 5-15 prep, 1 grading
  • Course 1, Section 2 - 5 contact, 0 prep, 1 grading
  • Course 2, Section 1 - 5 contact, 5-15 prep, 1 grading
  • Course 2, Section 2 - 5 contact, 0 prep, 1 grading

This would work out to 34-54 hours per week for the first semester. In subsequent semesters, the prep time decreases greatly. You might need a minimum of 2 hours per week total using the example above, and if you spend more, that time can go into improving the quality of the lectures. So maybe you would spend 30-40 hours per week in subsequent semesters.

In short, the workload for the first semester is very high, but as you continue to teach the same courses, it decreases a lot. In my personal experience, after several semesters of teaching the same course, I can almost teach it from memory - so my prep time instead becomes "improvement" time. In the same respect, preparing one course makes preparing for other courses easier - you learn how to organize material more effectively, you find ways to re-use content and learning materials, and you develop teaching patterns that can be applied to multiple classes.

For all of these reasons, teaching is not really a profession that can be easily characterized by weekly workload. Some weeks you might put in 50-60 hours, some weeks maybe it would be only 20. But in general, for a full-time position the average should work out to somewhere around 40 hours per week.

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    I assume full-time lecturers are given the same courses to teach year after year. In some places professors are given a different course each semester, so the same course is taught by different people each year. Less boring, but higher workload. In other places the same course is always taught by the same person.
    – Paracelsus
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 18:55
  • It depends on the teacher and on the institution, but yes, in general you tend to teach the same courses year-to-year. There are exceptions for developing new courses, for rotating between professors, and for taking over when someone retires. It also depends on the institution and the faculty's preferences.
    – thomij
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:11
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    You forgot office hours, dealing with student email, and other course administration. If you only spend one hour per week grading, either your classes are tiny, your homeworks are too easy, your grading is superficial, or the teaching assistants who are doing most of the grading for you need more supervision.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:17
  • @JeffE - I don't agree with you, I think that for a well-designed course with appropriate (and well-designed) assignments, you can easily get the average time spent grading down to one hour per course per week. Remember, that's an average over an entire semester. Of course, a lot depends on the type of class. for example, a writing course will require less time in prep and more time in grading than a science course. I do agree that there are other responsibilities I didn't list here - the point was just to show that the first semester is indeed a lot of work, but later it tends to even out.
    – thomij
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 21:21
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    you can easily get the average time spent grading down to one hour per course per week — This is simply not possible in (theoretical) computer science.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 21:27

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