Image courtesy of William Warby

Today, I had the opportunity to give my first webinar. I’ve given presentations before, but this is the first one I have done online. Normally, I’m quite comfortable giving a session, even if I am a little nervous beforehand. Once I get talking, I normally get into a groove. That wasn’t the case today, I felt the pressure of all of the things that could potentially go wrong and to top it off, my talk was being followed up with a second seminar right after mine. For some reason, that time pressure really got to me. I kept watching the clock, making sure I was on task and on time.

This experience made me think about my students and the way we time things in our classrooms. I have had a number of people in my classroom lately, observing and participating in instructing my students. In those moments, I feel the pressure to keep on schedule so as to show a complete cycle of an activity from introduction to conclusion. I have to keep telling myself to be flexible for the sake of the students.

Setting time limits in the classroom does have merit, but it should be so rigid that students don’t have a chance to complete anything. Some students work faster than others, other take more time for a number of reasons. There are those who work though tasks with lightning speed, almost as if it is a competition. Others like to think things over (maybe a bit too much?) and need the space to do that. So how do you deal with that in a classroom? You don’t want some students to always be waiting on others and I certainly don’t want to give ‘busy work’ at any time.

For myself, I have fought through this dilemma and I feel I have a fairly reliable system set up based on what I feel is best for the students. Here are some of solutions:

Individual work time: My class has an ongoing assignment throughout the semester that can be done in class or at home. I have students do extensive reading and listening combined with journaling that is given a mark once completed. I give marks based on how much is done, not on the quality of the journaling. I do give feedback on the writing, but the mark is strictly based on how much of the assignment they completed. For example, I may ask students to read 2000 words per week in English and journal about their experience. They need to write a minimum of 50 words for every 500 words. If a students does everything as asked, they get 100%. If they do half, they get 50%. This is tabulated each week and at the end of the semester, this goes towards their participation mark. The total mark is not worth very much (maybe 10% of their grade), but giving students something to work for each week helps they feel like they are progressing. Students can do this assignment at any time, so I tell students who finish early on a class assignment that they can get the reading or listening done so they have less homework. If students take longer in class, they will have to do more out of the classroom. It isn’t entirely fair, but it does seem to work.

Setting shorter tasks: On longer, more extensive tasks or assignments, I break the objectives down into much smaller chunks. This way, the time that others are waiting is reduced. It also helps me know if students are doing things well. Some students rush through an assignment only to find out that they did it poorly or incorrectly. If I catch that earlier on, I can eliminate this problem. Also, this makes it easier for peer-assistance. I can have students help their fellow classmates once they are done. Timing those smaller tasks is easier as well. I make better guesses on how long students will need to get things done. Also, telling students they have one minute remaining on a small task is less stressful than telling them they only have ten minutes left on a larger task.

Grouping: I tend to put students of different levels together so that the more experienced student can assist the one who needs more attention. I try not to make it too wide of a gap so as to avoid the lower level student shutting down. Having two students together who work quickly is almost as difficult to handle as grouping two students who are slower. This helps alleviate this problem.

Giving clear timing from the beginning: I use a timer on the screen to show students how long they have and how much time they have left. I often shout out markers along the way to help them stay on task. I wander around, helping students and making sure they know how much time they have left. I will sometimes adjust the time along the way if I feel it is too short for the class. I tend to give too much time at the beginning since it is better to finish early than to pressure the students unnecessarily.

Keeping track of how long things take: One of the things I do while I am teaching is to record the time it took to complete each task. It is the same thing I do while observing my practicum teachers. I write things down for them so they can learn how long things take. By doing it for myself, I have become more aware of how long to give for each task based on the level of the students, the time of day, and other factors.

Running through it before I teach it: Doing the task on my own helps me work out the timing and also helps be find possible areas of trouble. What looks simple on paper, can be quite daunting once you work through it. The reverse is also true. Some things look like they will take a long time when in reality, they are quite simple to complete.

Give clear instructions: It is amazing how much time can be taken up helping students understand the task if they are confused. Clear instructions with simple examples will clear things up nicely. Teaching new instructors on how to give understandable instructions should be a high priority for teacher trainers. It is a valuable tool that helps both teacher and students get through some potentially rough spots in the class.

I am sure there are other things I haven’t thought about, but that is it from me for now. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below or send me a Tweet. I love to hear from each one of you. Thanks!

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