7 Tips For Teaching Large Online Classes And Handling Your Workload
Many online teachers struggle to cope with large online classes. Online teaching is already challenging enough. But when your student numbers feel like they’re starting to approach the population of a small country, it’s hard not to panic. Most of us just sigh, stir our 8th cup of coffee, cancel our weekend plans (again), and get on with it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are several ways to get your workload under control, do your job well—and not burn out.
I’ve taught over 7,000 online learners so far, and often teach over 200 students at a time, in rolling class intakes that overlap throughout the calendar year. I’ve discovered through experience that there’s a right way and a wrong way to manage large online classes. Over the last 17 years, I’ve developed some practical ways of managing a workload that often looks a little overwhelming. These seven easy tips will help get your workload firmly under control.
How To Get Your Teaching Workload Under Control: Large Online Classes Edition
1. Make Every Monday A Strategy Day
It’s tempting to dive head-first into your workload on Monday morning and swim around frantically in circles. But if you do that, you’ll run out of air faster than you’d believe. And you can’t get much done when you’re busy drowning. So instead, use the first day of the week to take stock of your workload. It’s much harder to subdue a monster of a workload without a plan of attack. Review what didn’t get finished last week and reprioritize. Download new student work to grade, and add it to your schedule. Now you’re starting the week with a plan, not a sense of general panic.
2. Redefine “Urgent”
It might feel like it, but it’s not true that everything has to be done right now. It’s too easy to get into the habit of believing that most of your to-do list is madly urgent; the fact is, it’s probably not. Here’s how to tell if something is really urgent: If you don’t do it right now, will there be massive consequences? If so, it’s urgent. If not, then it can wait. So, rather than treating everything as urgent, instead, make a rational list ordered by actual priorities.
For example, if the head of the department has sent you an important email, answer that first. If you have overdue student assignments to return, attend to them next. The key here is to keep a sense of perspective. No matter how “urgent” a task is, chances are we’re not talking life or death. Take a deep breath, and move methodically—not feverishly—through the work.
3. Be Seen And Heard
It’s common for learners to experience a sense of isolation in online classes. This can be exacerbated when the online class itself is large, with the potential for learners to feel lost in the crowd. One way to counter this effect is to make sure that your presence is tangible. Ensure that your students can “see” you; include a smiling photo on your staff profile and perhaps provide a welcome video or a Zoom office hour where you consult face to face. And, make sure your voice can also be “heard” with regular emails, and announcements (these can be pre-scheduled in your LMS to save time).
While you establish your presence as a reassuring guide for the online course, you can also set expectations for how and when to contact you (during office hours, not by Zoom at 3 am).
3. Streamline Your Working Environment
It’s difficult to be productive when you’re surrounded by chaos. There’s no doubt that it’s much harder to try and climb a mountain of work while sorting through a messy pile of must-do-now lists, checking your phone, trying to answer emails, and returning 27 text messages. The best way to get through a large workload is by being calm and focused. That state of mind is impossible to achieve in a tornado of noise and distraction. So instead, consciously create a clear mental and physical working space. Close extra internet browser windows, set your phone to silent, and shut your office door. Move all the clutter, lists, and well-meaning mess out of your field of vision. Clear surfaces and a quiet environment will create the best environment for productivity.
4. Try The “Touch It Once” Principle
Multi-tasking is overrated and increases distractions. It’s easy to get into the habit of opening an email, getting halfway through answering it, and then jumping over to work on an essay you’re halfway through grading. But by splitting your focus, you actually get less done. The amount of energy it takes to go back and forth between half-finished tasks is phenomenal. It’s exhausting—and makes you feel even more overwhelmed.
It’s a much better idea to finish each task before moving on to the next one. This “touch it once” rule can transform the way you work. For example, if you open an email, answer that email, and then move it out of your inbox. If you start grading a student’s paper, finish grading the paper, record the mark, and email the student. This is the secret to not having a thousand half-finished tasks you’ve completely lost track of.
5. Use Templates Strategically
It’s inefficient to create repetitive student feedback and standard emails from scratch. You can waste a massive amount of time writing the same comments over and over again. The solution is to draw strategically on templates.
If you’re grading 40 essays and you find students are making similar kinds of mistakes, create a template that points out how to fix them. Then modify that basic template for each student, rather than typing similar advice 40 times. This saves time, and as a bonus, helps ensure your feedback is consistent.
6. Reduce Your Marking Load
A strategic way to mark fewer assignments is to replace at least one of them with an activity or exercise that can be peer-reviewed by the students themselves. Set out some clear guidelines of what should happen when peers review each other’s work first—and explain that criticism must be respectful, relevant, and polite. Then, once the ground rules are in place, you can share the marking load with students who are now also learning relevant real-world skills: communication and constructive critique.
Group work (and giving group feedback) is also a viable option to consider. Teamwork skills are needed every day in the workplace, so refining your students’ abilities in this area is another positive outcome. And you’ll end up marking one group project, rather than multiple individual submissions.
7. Take (At Least) One Day-Off Per Week
You might assume that the best way to get through a heavy workload is to work 7 days a week. But if you do, you’ll be burned out, exhausted, and overwhelmed in no time. And then your workload starts to look completely unmanageable. It’s much smarter to build in regular time away from the job. At least one whole day of rest and recuperation per week will make a massive difference in how you feel about your job. Your energy levels will go right up. Your attitude will swing back to being positive. And, you’ll remember that there’s a lot to like about teaching online.
These seven steps are simple but highly strategic. By making deliberate, tactical changes like this in your working day, you’ll find that a heavy workload is no longer so crushing. In fact, it’s a challenge you’re more than ready for.