How best to use class time? (11 years later)

photo of a classroom with empty desks and chairs

Classroom by Victor Björkund, licensed CC BY 2.0 on Flickr.

Eleven years ago, during the summer I first started this blog (2006), I wrote a couple of posts about the use of class time: What is class time for? Part 1 and Part 2.

I don’t know whether the fact that I’m still dealing with a version of the same question this many years later means I’m just failing or that it’s a hard problem. I believe the latter, though!

In those posts I wondered what is the best use of the limited time that we have to have students together in a room (if we teach face-to-face courses, that is). What I was used to from my own courses, and what I did when I first started teaching, was to use that time to: (1) do a lecture in which I explain the assigned readings, clarifying complicated points, heading off potential misunderstandings, and then also either offering a critique or inviting students to offer critiques; and also (2) often I would find ways to engage students in a discussion of some philosophical question. This latter would be either the whole class together (depending on the size of the class), or small groups.

Even in 2006, my third year at UBC (my sixth year of teaching after the PhD), I was wondering about (1). Not that I think that is a bad thing to do, but I was wondering how much time I should spend on that, because:

  • Why should students spend time reading (let’s face it, often difficult) texts when they can come to class and get it explained by the prof?
  • My conception of philosophy, especially for students who may take one or two philosophy classes but won’t be majors, is that it could go beyond reading writings by others and discussing them. I think philosophy is valuable and useful beyond the academy, and doing courses in which all students do is read what others have said and critique it can give a narrow view of what philosophy and philosophical activity are and could be. That’s what professional philosophers do, but most students in my 100 level courses won’t become professional philosophers.
  • Does it really help students learn how to understand and critique complicated arguments if the instructor usually does it for them? Some modeling is necessary, of course, but more practice than I used to give (and frankly, more than I currently give) could be pedagogically useful.

Revisiting the question

Now, here I am in 2017, still addressing a variant of the same question: what is the best use of that limited face-to-face time? What do we need to be in the same room together to do, and what can be done without being in the same room together? (The success of many online courses says there may be a great deal that can be done separately, asynchronously, online).

I asked this question in a shorter way in a recent blog post, but am here digging in more deeply.


I remember vividly coming back from a one-year sabbatical to teach Introduction to Philosophy in the Fall of 2013 and thinking, as I was standing in front of a large class, why am I wasting everyone’s time by standing up here and talking over a power point presentation? Do we all need to be here in the room for me to do that, or could this be a video they watch outside of class if all I am doing is talking at them?

Now, to be fair, I didn’t even then just talk at students for lengthy periods of time; I have for awhile now had a common practice of breaking up lecture with activities where students were doing something other than just listening and taking notes. But I wondered how much of my lecture needed to be given “live” and how much would be better if it were asynchronous.

There can be a great value in being able to go back and review certain parts of a lecture that you are struggling with, or that you missed because something else caught your attention for a bit (which happens all the time to many people, especially if it’s a long lecture).

Still, I’m not suggesting I or anyone else stop lecturing in class entirely. It can be useful to remind students of various things, to introduce background information for an in-class activity, and more. It’s just that I want to be more reflective about what kinds of lectures I give inside the class and what outside, and why.

One way to think about this is to focus on the kinds of activities that really need everyone in a room together at the same time, and use the inside/outside class time lectures most efficiently to support that: what needs to be said during the class to support that activity, and what works well outside?

And I should say that it’s very important to consider student workload: moving what was done during the class to outside adds to the outside-of-class workload, and this can mean that things that used to be outside of class, like reading assignments, may need to be reduced to avoid creating unsustainable workloads for students.

One thing I’ve done a bit, and want to do more, is to create videos for background information that is helpful to know when reading the text outside of class. Things like historical context or other information helpful to understanding what is going on in a philosophical text can easily be given outside of class, especially if there is a way for students to raise questions about the video and have them be answered relatively quickly.

I have also created a series of videos on the Trolley Problem that were meant to replace a fair bit of the lecture I used to give, so that we could more quickly get to discussion of the problem (which is always very lively!).

The main difficulty I have found in doing more of the “lecture” work outside of class is finding the time to create decent quality videos. Some things I’ve made are nothing more than screencasts of me going through slides, which is pretty boring.

What are some other good uses of the time we’re in a room together?

I’m brainstorming by writing; here are some ideas.

  • Discussions of philosophical questions: These can be done online, asynchronously, but it can also be of value to have the conversation move along more quickly, with people talking together. There is probably value in doing both in-person, synchronous discussions and asynchronous ones, since the latter provides a venue for those who like to think through their ideas before voicing them, and those who for other reasons aren’t entirely comfortable discussing philosophical questions live and in person.
  • Individual, timed assessments: If one wants to be able to control what students can see and use during a quiz or exam, it’s easier to do if they’re all in a room together (which isn’t to say that exams can’t be invigilated online, just than if one has face-to-face time, this seems like a useful way to spend that time because it’s easier than trying to do such things online.
  • Hands-on or other activities that require a particular space/place: Sometimes learning needs to happen in a particular place because it has certain equipment, or because the learning is about that place, or because being in a space affects learning in a way that wouldn’t happen without being in that space. Most of my teaching doesn’t fall under this category, though if I thought hard I might come up with more opportunities for this to be useful in my philosophy courses.
  • Peer instruction: I’m using this term in a general sense, to cover various ways in which students help each other and themselves learn (I’m not sure this is a good term to use, but I’m going with it for the moment). Again, this can be done outside of class, online, but if there is face-to-face time, having students work together can be a good use of that time (rather than having them all sitting in a room at the same time listening to something for 50 minutes).What I’m thinking about as peer instruction includes:
    • peer feedback on assignments
    • group assignments/projects
    • group exams (e.g., two-stage exams)
    • team-based learning
    • think-pair-share and similar exercises
    • classroom response system questions (clickers and the like) answered individually and then answered again after discussing with other students
    • groups creating quiz or exam questions
    • presentations by students to the class, alone or in groups
    • discussions, as above

There is a great deal of literature in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning showing the value for student learning of many of the activities in the above list under “peer instruction,” and as this is an informal blog post for the sake of thinking through my own ideas, I’m not going to try to list all that literature here. Suffice it to say that many of these are not only things that are good uses of us being in a room together, they are also shown to be of value for student learning.

Temporary conclusion

The point of this post is just to allow me to work through my current thoughts, via writing, about what kinds of things work well inside and outside of class.

I want to take these reflections and apply them to my Introduction to Philosophy course I’m teaching in January, but I’ll start a new post for that in order to keep this one to a manageable size!


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