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I'm planning my first course, and I'm starting to realize that it's actually broken into a long string of smaller topics, and that each smaller topic is unlikely to fit into a single lecture. Teaching each sub-topic as a lecture would either make my lectures run short or too long. I'm considering planning out my lectures in a continuous way: rather than write up a plan for lecture 1, 2, and so on, I'm thinking of just writing out all of what I want to say for each topic, all of the examples and so forth. Then, I just start at the beginning and keep going, ending each lecture at an appropriate place in the notes.

Is that a bad idea? Are there any best practices I should follow?

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    Best practices: Be careful not to get too attached to your planned schedule, lest you end up going too fast and leaving your students behind in order to "cover" everything you had planned. See the joke at the end of this answer. – ff524 Jan 17 '17 at 18:01
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    Yeah, you definitely want more content than you need. Classes have a pesky way of not going the way the teacher expects. You might go too fast and you might go too slow. Also, give yourself a few semesters to get it right. – Dave Kanter Jan 17 '17 at 18:23
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    There is an "easy" way to make sure lectures are neither too short nor too long. If you finish a topic early, let everyone go early. If the class period ends before you finish the day's topic, refer everyone to the book/notes, and start the next topic next time. Plan accordingly. – JeffE Jan 18 '17 at 0:29
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Planning it in a continuous way and not lecture by lecture gives you more flexibility in the classroom as questions or other issues might interfere with your planning and therefore your planning doesn't work out anymore. On the other case, there is a chance that you won't plan enough for a lecture, so a continuous plan enables you to "fill" a hole, in case you'd advance faster than you have planned.

A lecture by lecture plan may be helpful as well, maybe not on a very detailed level. But writing down which topics you'd like to cover within which lectures helps in setting up an underlying structure of the course, showing the coherence of the smaller topics.

Going further, I'd like to add, that if you plan to write down what you are going to say, you might ask yourself the question if it is helpful for your teaching or the students learning if you hand out some form of lecture notes at the beginning of the course. I, as a student, enjoy having to take less notes and being able to focus more on what the teacher is saying. As a teacher, with lecture notes, I know for myself, that my lesson is carefully planned and that I have already done a good amount of work for next year. If you are concerned, that with lecture notes students attention may decline, I suggest that you leave out certain type of content, in mathematics e.g. examples.

  • "Planning it in a continuous way and not lecture by lecture gives you more flexibility" because "questions or other issues might interfere with your planning and therefore your planning doesn't work out anymore." Huh? The conjecture of your opening sentence argues against itself. – 8protons Jan 17 '17 at 20:14
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    @8protons My planning rarely works out, having it planned in a continuous way, leaves me with less / smaller problems. – Buochserhorn Jan 17 '17 at 21:07
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There is one very big drawback with the continuous approach as you've described it: the students get no direct positive feedback from attending a lecture. That means that the effort of turning up to a lecture goes unrewarded for a long time, which may seriously hurt the attendance and motivation.

I like to spend at least a little time considering for each lecture how the students will feel afterward. I remember best the lectures where I really felt like I had learned something. A kind of feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration at the same time. The sensation that you now know more cool stuff. I feel if I can achieve that feeling in my students I can keep them coming back.

Moreover, people have a natural attention span of about 20 minutes. It's best to plan your material in chunks of 20 minutes, and plan for a small distraction in between those chunks (some interactivity, or a light video).

Finally, it really helps students to give a layout of the lecture beforehand, so they can plan their attention levels. If they have no idea what's coming, how long you're going to be talking about X, and why it's important to know before you move on to Y, they'll lose focus. It's very hard to maintain your focus when you don't know what you're supposed to be focusing on.

If you don't give some thought to where you want to end up after each 20 minute chunk in your lectures, there no way to achieve this, and most likely you will just drone on for an hour, eat in to the break, and end up losing student's attention, and then students.

Of course, the flip-side of a rigorously planned lecture series, as others have pointed out, is that you lose the flexibility to adjust to how well the students are absorbing the material. Here's how I would start:

  • Make a list of learning goals: what should the students absolutely learn, what would be nice for them to learn.
  • Plan your course requirements (exam, report, practicals, everything that adds to the grade) to reflect these learning goals and their relative priorities.
  • Create a preliminary series of topics on the basis of the learning goals. Make sure to focus on the information required to achieve the requirements. Chunk each lecture into 4 20-minute sub-topics.
  • Make sure to check at every opportunity whether the students are following along, or falling behind. Ask plenty of questions during the lectures (for instance, between these 20 minute chunks), and try to talk to students one-on-one whenever possible.
  • If you find out that people are falling behind, re-adjust between lectures. Adjust the planning, scratch some of the minor learning goals. But change the plan you had, rather than not having a plan to begin with.
  • We have focused on very different parts of his notion of "continuous". I assumed that, by "writing out all of what I want to say", he doesn't imply saying exactly what he wrote. My notion of continuous planning includes flexibility in wording as well. And I really like your list! – Buochserhorn Jan 17 '17 at 21:27
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    Thanks! I didn't imagine the OP would fully write out a series of lectures in advance (that would be pretty heroic). I interpreted the "continuous plan" as dealing with each topic one after the other in one stream, and just stopping whenever the time runs out in picking back up the next lecture. Kind of one big lecture in 10 two-hour chunks. I may have misinterpreted though. – Peter Jan 17 '17 at 21:41
  • No, you didn't. I've done a lot of tutorials, not many lectures, but I tend to have points that I elaborate on. Usually I have worked examples set up completely, but other than that it's point form. I'm not writing a speech for every lecture :-) – Michael Stachowsky Jan 19 '17 at 14:58
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I would recommend a very firm day-to-day schedule in advance, and (as in software) a "top-down" approach to developing it. E.g.:

Will you have a final exam? Then the skills desired on the final should be drafted (or obtained from the department) first. Will you have midterm exams and assignments? Then these are your "tentpoles"; ideally they should be scheduled before the semester starts, and the necessary skills must be covered before the exam dates are reached. Assignments need the skill presentations complete beforehand; and also time to submit, grade, and give feedback before associated tests. If you give weekly or daily quizzes, then the required skill scheduling gets even more granular.

Establish coherent topical "chunks" of your semester (a few weeks between exams or assignments), and then make a schedule filling in between them day-by-day. If you find that there's an extra or missing part of a day in a block, then commit to cutting or expanding the subject within that topical block. (Sometimes an extra 30 minute span provides the best opportunity for an extra related topic that tickles your fancy and no one else covers.)

It's far easier to squeeze or expand lectures by 5 minutes each day than it is to get to the last week of the semester and realize that you haven't gotten to 5 chapters of the book. Krantz in How to Teach Mathematics recommends having lectures that can be adjusted by a few minutes each day (I do this with a list of in-class exercises).

As most of us know, time-management is among the top priorities working in academia, and this is a reflection of that. My guiding principle is: schedule uber alles; after a few semesters of teaching a class, I can usually dictate from memory what's happening in every 30-minute time period all semester long.

I haven't taken education courses, but the "top-down" design method works for me, and I've tangentially heard that this is what's recommended in courses on pedagogy.

  • What does schedule uber alles mean? – I Like to Code Jan 17 '17 at 23:33
  • @ILiketoCode: "Schedule over everything" [as a priority] – Daniel R. Collins Jan 18 '17 at 2:20

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