Teaching load, itemized: part 1

Some time ago, in this post, I committed the sin of mentioning teaching workload a couple of times. Mostly, I was speculating if it might be possible to combine research with other types of part-time work instead of teaching, in similar proportions, for those researchers who would be so inclined. The reaction was… interesting. I was told repeatedly (and rudely, in one comment that I have since deleted) that I should stop complaining and exaggerating. Physicists said that they could always use their research grants to buy out their teaching if they need more research time, and in any case there are plenty of teaching-free research jobs out there.

This is all against the constant background of newspaper noise about college professors getting paid a full-time professional salary to teach for a few hours per week, with the entire summer off and a long winter break, too, courtesy of the taxpayers. Naturally, we complain about too much teaching anyway, because we don’t care about the students and have too much free time on our hands.

I would not worry much about newspaper editorials and Gawker posts if they did not rub off on people I meet in real life. As a rule, my non-academic acquaintances assume that I don’t have to work at all in the summer. When I mention “research” or “administrative work”, they’re not sure what I mean exactly, although “working with graduate students” can get a nod. They’re surprised to hear that I prepare for classes – don’t I have the notes from last year or whenever? They get the general idea that teaching 200 students is a lot of work, though, and I don’t have to explain why I don’t read or answer student emails on evenings and weekends.

The WaPo article and Gawker post linked above are especially obnoxious even by the standards of the genre, in that they actually attack faculty at teaching institutions – those with 4-4 and 5-5 teaching loads – for not working hard enough to earn their keep:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.


This is nonsense that does not pass the smell test.
For more responses, see here, here, here, or here.

The truth of the teaching profession is that no matter how much we are doing already, no matter how much time and energy we put into it, there is always more that could be done. There will always be someone eager to point it out to us, too. We’re supposed to do it out of a personal sense of obligation to our students, driven by our “calling” and passion for teaching. But it doesn’t count as work, because we’re not actually teaching a class, we’re just helping people we should care about.

It’s been shown beyond doubt that stretching the work week past 40 hours lowers productivity, compromises the quality of work, and raises safety concerns. I care about my students. That’s why I don’t want to walk into my 10 am class already visibly tired and low on energy. I don’t want to subject them to lectures that are full of mistakes because I’m fried and can’t focus. And I certainly don’t want to kill or maim them in a car accident due to sleep deprivation.

That, at any rate, is the only response I’ll ever have to the guilt-inducing arguments that shame us for taking a weekend off (clearly, we’re not thinking of the students!) and equate it with slacking out and working less than half-time for a full-time salary. There are more sensible conversations to be had, though. How can we explain what we do to the general public? Can our work be organized more efficiently? (Very likely.) How has it evolved since the mythical golden age of academics walking leisurely around campus, dressed in tweed jackets and thinking deep thoughts? Did that golden age ever actually exist? How will academia evolve in response to the advent of online education? Which parts of our work will be displaced?

That’s enough material for several posts, and now that I’m done with this semester’s teaching, I might actually have the time to write them. First, though, I’ll have to describe the teaching workload here in some detail. For now, I’ll limit this to undergraduate courses; I’ll save graduate teaching for next time, along with comparisons to other departments and universities. I have to say that it feels petty and boring to have to itemize the components of midterm preparation in a blog post. On the other side, though, there’s the myth of 20-minute class preparation time, with no office hours or midterms ever and TAs who work magic like a genie in a bottle.

Overview. The standard job contract for research faculty at R1 universities, including here, is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Assuming 50 weeks of full-time work per year, this translates to the equivalent of 20 weeks of teaching, 20 weeks of research, and 10 of administrative work.

The normal course teaching load for research faculty in mathematics at UBC is 3 courses per year. Each course is semester-long (13 weeks plus exam period) and meets in class for 3 hours per week. (Additional teaching credit is given for 4-hour courses and for extra large sections with 200 or more students.) The supervision of graduate students and undergraduate research projects is in addition to that. We get no teaching credit for it, but on the other hand, the current NSERC policy makes it a mandatory condition for holding a research grant.

Undergraduate courses. I would estimate the workload involved during the semester at 5 hours total per 1 hour in class, not counting pre-course preparation (fixing the syllabus, choosing a textbook) and final exams. With those added, most 3-hour courses average out to 6-7 weeks (a month and a half, roughly) of full-time work. Multiply it by 3 (the number of courses), and that’s 20 weeks already, even without counting graduate supervision. This is the total workload, including everything from class preparation to grading to answering student emails.

Exactly how this breaks down depends on the course. The last two undergraduate courses I taught were Math 220 (Mathematical Proof) and Math 317 (Advanced Calculus IV), both in Fall 2011, so I will be using these as a benchmark. Math 317 had 2 midterms, bi-weekly homework assignments, and a final exam, which is the generally accepted standard here. Math 220 was similar except that homework was due every week, but on the other hand it was common for the two sections of the course, so I only had to prepare it every other time. (This is an “introduction to proof” course where the department pays special attention, so I did not have all that much freedom with that one.) I had not taught either course before, although I had taught other versions of the calculus course. In Math 220, I was the “Instructor In Charge” (an official term) of the two course sections. I had TAs for both classes.

Excluding pre-course preparation, midterms and final exams, the workload amounted to about 12 hours per week per course, which breaks down approximately as follows.

  • Class hours: 3 per week.
  • Class preparation: 3 hours per week, one for each hour in class, sometimes less. The material is routine and familiar, but we still have to think about how to present it, how it ties in with the rest of the course, write out a script so we don’t forget anything (easy to happen with material that’s too familiar: “Oh, wait, you guys mean you didn’t know this obvious thing?…”), work out a few examples in advance, anticipate common questions, respond to issues that arose in earlier classes.

    Having notes from previous years can help, but does not eliminate preparation altogether. Mathematics is not just a linear sequence of words, formulas and images on paper, where each step is independent of everything else. To present an argument effectively, we need to have a good mental picture of it in its entirety, along with the context and some specific examples. That requires at least re-reading the old notes before class and thinking about them for a bit. Additionally, the notes often have to be tweaked according to class schedule (two 1.5-hour classes per week might be organized differently than three 1-hour classes, if we want each class to be reasonably self-contained rather than just stopping at some random point and then resuming there next time), student background, changes to prerequisites, textbook updates, and so on.

  • Office hours and in-person contact with students: 3 hours per week. The department mandates 3 office hours per week, and additionally we have to accommodate students with schedule conflicts who need appointments at other times. Many students line up to ask questions after each class instead; this usually takes at least 15-20 minutes, sometimes 30. When we teach 2 courses, the scheduled office hours are shared between them, but there are also more requests for individual appointments, and there is more demand for impromptu office hours after class (in my case, 4 times per week, since I already had 2 office hours scheduled immediately after class).
  • Homework: 1.5-2 hours per week, or 3-4 hours per each bi-weekly assignment. Normally, I assign problems from the textbook, after screening them for the material they cover and checking the solutions (the questions should not be extraordinarily difficult to grade). Less work for me, and there are often good reasons why the authors included these particular problems. The rest of the time is spent on writing up the solutions, providing instructions and a grading scheme to the TA (see below), addressing inquiries and complaints from students, and record keeping.

    Regarding solutions manuals: some textbooks have none (as in Math 220). Other times (Math 317), the student solutions manual has only half of the solutions (either the odd-numbered or the even-numbered questions), and neither the TA nor many of the students have it anyway. The instructor’s manual includes all solutions, but copying and posting them on the course website would have been an obvious and flagrant copyright violation, so I wrote up shorter “answer keys” (leaving out most calculations) for that purpose.

    This is par for the course here and consistent with student expectations. We can’t do much less than that without our teaching evaluation scores taking a dive. That said, if I had to cut somewhere, I’d start here: first the solution sets, then the number and/or length of assignments. I will be happy to use online homework systems once they’re available widely and functional enough. (I tried one in a calculus course 5 years ago and students were not impressed. Hopefully they’ve gotten better since then.) This is also where it helps to have taught the course before, or to get the materials from the previous course instructor (this saved me time in Math 220). Homework problems and solution sets, unlike midterms, can be re-used.

  • Other: 1-1.5 hours per week. In Math 220 and 317, this included reading and answering email from students, reading departmental and university teaching-related email (and responding if necessary), attendance issues, classroom issues (one classroom was too small for midterms), meeting with the other Math 220 instructor, coordinating with Math 220 workshop facilitators, updating the course webpages, emailing class announcements to the course mailing list, looking up 3D math animations on YouTube for the calculus students, trying out the animations on the textbook website (apparently I didn’t have the right version of Java installed), preparing and reading midterm teaching evaluations (mandatory), sending exams for a special needs student to the disability resource centre, and so on. In other courses, it could also include AV set-up, picking up a microphone from a different part of the building each time before class and dropping it off afterwards, dealing with TA problems, or just walking to the classroom and back. (It’s a large campus. If getting there takes 10 minutes each way, and if there are 3 classes per week, that adds up to an hour already.) Some of these are just one-time occurrences, but then there are so many of them, there’s always something each week.

In case you’re keeping count, 13 weeks of this brings us to about 4 weeks of full-time work. We still need to add a couple of things.

  • Pre-course preparation: planning the syllabus, choosing the textbook, setting up the course webpage, working out the schedule of midterms and homework assignments, uploading the syllabus and webpage link to the departmental webpage, checking out the classroom (size, layout, do I need AV or a microphone). This can take me as little as a day or two if I use a standard syllabus and last year’s textbook. If I’m teaching a relatively new course where the syllabus has not yet been settled and various textbooks are being tried out, or developing one from scratch, or revising it extensively, it can take several days spread out over a period of time (starting several months in advance when textbook orders are submitted to the bookstore).

    Teaching the same course repeatedly can mean two different things. If the course is well settled and you’re not making significant changes to it, you’re lucky. You might be done in just a few hours. If you’re developing a new course and get assigned to teach it several times for that reason, see above.

  • Midterms: there are usually 2 per course, each 1-hour long. For each midterm, I’m counting one full day for preparation: making up the questions, typesetting and copying the exams, writing up and typing the solutions, posting sample midterms on course webpage. This is assuming time-saving measures such as having a TeX template available and having exams from previous years available to use as sample midterms. If I had to (for example) make up a separate sample midterm, that would take longer. I’m also counting a full day to do my share of grading (see below). That’s another 4 days, maybe 5 if the grading takes longer.
  • Final exams: 2.5 hours long, and mandatory in all undergraduate courses that are not cross-listed. One day (sometimes a bit longer) to prepare the problems, type up the exam and make copies. Additional office hours before the final. 3.5 hours for proctoring and collecting the exams. Then, grading and computing the course marks. Math 220 and 317 (60 and 75 students, respectively) had their final exams on consecutive days, and took me probably about 30 hours to grade each. (60 * 30 minutes = 30 hours. 75 * 24 minutes = 30 hours, also. Less than that is not really plausible.) I did not have TAs to help me with that – both courses only had TAs assigned during the semester, not for the final exams. (Grades are due 7 days after each final exam, in case you were interested.) Finally, a couple of hours for the mandatory end of course paperwork: cover sheets, stats, rechecking the exams of students who failed the course. A few students requested appointments to view their final exams afterwards. Adds up, by my count, to about 7 8-hour workdays of work per course.

That’s additional 2.5 weeks right there.

The workload distribution can vary from course to course. For example, large calculus classes can require less preparation time given that the material is easier, and there are additional TAs hired to help with marking the exams, but more time is needed for individual meetings with students and responding to student email. Calculus classes with specified target audience (for life sciences, for social sciences, etc.) cover standard material, but the presentation is quite different from the usual calculus for science and engineering, so some preparation may be required there. You might spend less time on grading finals in the smaller honours classes, but more on syllabus design and finding additional resources.

Teaching assistants. Many of our TAs (about half, probably) are undergraduate students who may have only taken the same course the year before. Typically, they’re diligent, conscientious and hard-working. What they’re not is experts on the subject. It would be insane to expect otherwise. They’re often first-time graders as well, and training them in that regard is considered as part of our duties as instructors. Graduate students can come from countries where a standard undergraduate mathematics background is different, or at least differently presented. There have also been occasional problems with unreliable or unqualified TAs (I have had a couple).

What this means is that we cannot simply leave the midterms or assignments in the TA’s mailbox and pick them up a few days later. At the very least, we have to provide an answer key and a fairly detailed marking scheme for each assignment (how many marks for each part of the solution, how to respond to common mistakes, etc.). I also meet with each TA at the beginning of the semester to discuss their duties, and if the first problem set has already been handed in, we mark a few assignments together. In my experience, this is necessary to prevent grading disasters that can be very difficult to fix and can result in massive student dissatisfaction. For the midterms, we are explicitly instructed to not leave the grading entirely to the TAs. One possibility is to meet with the TA and grade together (if the schedule permits). I tend to split the problems roughly in half, provide detailed instructions for the TA’s share of grading, and check on their work afterwards.

Buffer time. Before you start disputing my figures, I would suggest two more things to consider. One is fatigue. If answering a single email from a student when you’re fresh and well rested takes you 6 minutes, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to answer 20 of them in 2 hours. You’ll probably have to take a short break somewhere in the middle. OK, so we don’t usually get 20 student emails all at once, but there are plenty of repetitive and time-consuming tasks I’ve just listed.

Second, it would be really nice if everything ever worked exactly as it would be expected to work in ideal circumstances. Here on this planet, that does not happen. Just last week, the main copier in the department broke down for most of a day, right at the beginning of the exam period when everyone is busy copying their finals. TAs can be problematic. The lecture may have to be moved to a different classroom. Microphones can malfunction. The departmental remote server might be down just when you needed to upload a problem set. And so on. I don’t care if the same work could be done in less time by someone who’s always fresh and always has the best of luck with everything. That’s magical thinking, not real life.

Still think that I’m spending too much time on it? By all means, do explain. If I’m doing unnecessary stuff, I’d love to know that so that I could drop it. If teaching at UBC takes more time and effort than elsewhere, that would be interesting to know also. (I’ve said already in comments that, in my experience, a 4-course teaching load at Princeton was significantly lighter than a 3-course load at UBC.) I’ll get to that and more next time.

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7 Comments

Filed under mathematics: teaching, teaching

7 responses to “Teaching load, itemized: part 1

  1. Matthew Bond

    I still usually find class preparation taking longer than the lecture itself, even when I don’t end up at my best in the end. Sometimes 2-3x as long. But I’m still new. I think I’m getting quicker, but I can never quite settle on how to say things quite so easily. I guess I want there to be some main idea and a narrative arc or something, and I tend to spend time trying to piece together how it originally fit together for me in the first place.

  2. I think the point about buffer time is enormously important. Teaching is performance – especially for large classes. No one would expect an opera singer to sing eight hours a day.

  3. Pingback: Why Final Exams Might Be All Wrong? « Rashid's Blog

  4. I’ve just been through a round of exam grading myself (115 exams, also with no TA) and, to put it mildly, the work does not all feel useful. Given the amount of time per student, would you trade these 2.5 hour written finals for something like a 20-minute, 1-on-1 interview about the material at the end of term? Which would give better information and require fewer resources? (I am starting to feel like the in-person test might win this . . .)

  5. When I was an undergraduate in Poland, interview-type final exams were common. (I’ll get to that in one of the follow-up posts sometime.) That type of exam would likely be more time-efficient – I really don’t see how you can average less than 25-30 minutes of grading per exam unless you either make the exam significantly shorter or only do a very cursory check. I also suspect that we might be able to tell more about a student’s command of the material from talking to them for 15 minutes than from grading an exam (which mostly consists of standard questions anyway).

    But I don’t see it as a realistic possibility here and now. For this to happen, both the students and the administration would have to trust our judgement. They would have to accept that marks based on interviews are fair and correct enough, and more generally, that we as instructors know what we are doing. I don’t see that level of trust happening anytime soon.

    The written exams and homework score spreadsheets are perfect for documenting the little marks that add up to the final grade. But they also serve to hold us accountable for our work. I’m not always sure which part is more important.

  6. Matthew Bond

    I don’t think I like this interview idea because students would definitely be more likely to take it personally. There would have to be video recordings to make it fully documented and accountable and all that. Maybe it could work, but it would also require training instructors to do an additional thing; I wouldn’t quite know how to do this. I think it’s also easier to be objective with written finals; you see the same mistake 20 times, and you give the same score 20 times. Maybe the same could be done verbally, but again, it would take adjusting.

    Also, if they’re not examined orally throughout the year, then making them suddenly switch for the final could throw them off horribly. As teachers, we should know that a different skill is needed to detail the reasoning out loud. Getting efficient at solving problems and showing just enough work to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing is a lot easier. Maybe the way in which they would have to learn the material would improve this way, but it’s not a change that I’d take lightly.

    The written finals are an ordeal for everybody. On the one hand, you know with 90% accuracy what the grades will be before they even take them. That’s a lot of effort to learn 10% or less. On the other hand, the additional ordeal probably pushes them to learn more than they would otherwise, if at the last minute.

    Anyway, standard questions are more than hard enough for lower-level classes. I don’t know if there are more advantages at higher levels, but you can throw no curve balls at all and get a 65 raw average on a calc 3 final.

  7. victorsmiller

    When I left teaching for industrial research, even though I was working for 60 hours a week in the new job I felt like I wasn’t working anywhere near as hard as I did when I was teaching three 3 hour courses (plus all the other stuff). It’s ironic that the number one fear (ahead of death!) in most polls is having to speak in public, and yet these same people denigrate the accomplishments of teachers.