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Class Preparation in One Hour or Less

How much time do you take prepare for a one hour class? If you regularly take more than one hour you are spending too much time. Many professors I meet know they are spending far too much time preparing for classes. They also know that their classes don’t live up to their expectations. What they haven’t figured out is any to approach class preparation that will take minimum time and produce maximum results of great learning for your students and great ratings for your classes. This eNews will outline a process that you can replicate for each class you prepare. My clients who have implemented this process tell me it works for all academic fields from the sciences to the humanities and all levels, undergraduate and graduate classes.

The one consistent error that faculty make is approaching class prep like they are writing another doctoral dissertation. They start by doing a major literature search to learn everything they can about the topic and then proceed to write paragraphs and paragraphs of content.

While you might need to do that much research if you are unfamiliar with a topic, most of the material that you will be teaching will be on topics on which you have already had a whole graduate course. There are several problems with conducting a major literature search for class preparation:

  1. There just isn’t enough time to do that kind of thorough work two - three times a week for every class you teach.
  2. The students don’t want or need to know that much about the topic.
  3. You probably know a lot about the topic already and can draw on that knowledge to decide whether you need more research.
  4. You can get so bound up in preparing your fabulous notes that you forget that in spite of your title of professor, you are in the class to teach – not to profess. Teaching means the students learn something.

Here is a protocol I have developed that is short (it usually takes about an hour), good enough (we are not aiming at brilliant), and effective (my clients have raised their satisfactions with their classes and their class ratings). It takes four steps:

  • Generating ideas;
  • Getting organized;
  • Pulling it all together;
  • Rehearsing.

I have added some suggestions about how to prepare for a class covering material that you have never studied. Those suggestions will not take any more than one additional hour.

Generating Ideas

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I want my students to get out of this class?” Limit yourself to 1-3 major ideas, skills, arguments, or sections of material. Ask yourself the following question and be brutally honest: “If I were a student taking this class, why would I care about this topic?”

  2. Mind map all that you know about the topic for the class. In case you have never used this great brainstorming technique, mind mapping was created by a British brain expert, Tony Buzan, who wanted to help people generate creative ideas fast without being limited by an outline structure. Take a blank 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper and write a phrase that represents your topic in the center of the paper and circle it. Imagine that the circle is the hub of a wheel which has many spokes. These spokes will shoot out from the circle at different angles and form the frame of the wheel. However, the spokes will not necessarily be symmetrically placed. Ask yourself, “What are the major ideas about this concept that the students need to know in this course?” On each spoke print or write the phrase that belongs to this idea. Stick to about 3-4 major ideas or spokes for an hour’s class.

  3. Now ask yourself about each major idea, “What are the sub ideas under each major idea?” As ideas begin to jump out at you, draw small branches off of the main spokes. Print a phrase representing each idea on the smaller branches. Continue generating ideas and their supporting ideas on smaller spokes. You will find that ideas will flow in uneven directions. You might be writing on the left side of the paper when something occurs that belongs on the right. Capture it and go back to what you were doing. The process will be free flow and unstructured.

Getting Organized

  1. Now you are ready to rearrange your ideas into a structured class outline with major points supported by minor points. Check the readings you have assigned and coordinate their major concepts with your outline sections.

  2. After your outline looks very full, ask what else belongs in the class and integrate those ideas into your outline. Throw out any that don’t add anything seem to fit.

  3. Decide how much time each section should take. Distribute the time proportionally to the emphasis you want to give to each section. For example, a psychology professor teaching a class on Sensation and Perception for a class in Introduction to Psychology might plan to spend 20 minutes on vision, 20 minutes on hearing, 20 minutes on the other senses and 10 minutes on questions.

Structure each section with the following elements:
  • A transition from the previous section that introduces the topic and highlights why it is important; *One learning activity that has the students do something with the material. A learning activity might be a pencil/pen exercise, a small group discussion, a sample quiz, or a lab experiment.
  • A summary at the end of each section that the students do by writing about and shouting out key ideas or by using and electronic system that records their points.

  • Organize any physical items, equipment, lab sheets, or instructions that will be needed by the students to do the learning activity. Imagine all of the ways you can present the material that would not involve you talking. Can you include photos, music, art objects, web sites, etc.? What methods help students with different learning styles?

Pulling It All Together

  1. If you like to use PowerPoint, start preparing a slide series to organize the media you want to include. Don’t flood the slides with lots of itty bitty words. If it is conventional on your campus to post class notes for students, prepare a note taking outline for the students by subtracting your detailed talking points.

  2. In the case of a department syllabus requiring you to teach unfamiliar material, here is a quick emergency procedure.

  • Consult your graduate school notes to see what material you may have been exposed to on the topic. Start a mind map of your treasures.
  • Glance through alternate textbooks for similar courses that cover the topic. Add ideas to your mind map.
  • Do a quick search of whatever databases are used in your field. As an alternative, use Google Scholar.
  • Look for review articles and chapters by leaders in the field writing about this topic. Skim these chapters to find the major concepts. Don’t get bogged down in reading the original studies. You don’t have time for that now.
  • Mind map the concepts you wish to include in class and proceed to follow the above steps.


Depending on your experience and comfort, practice timing your slides and be sure to allow adequate time for the learning activities. They always take more time than you plan but when they work, they create some of the best teaching moments you can imagine.


How will you know if this process is working for you? You can keep track of your time investment and you can measure your satisfaction with the actual class with a simple scale (-5 -- +5).

Here are just a few ways to assess if this class was worthwhile to the students and if any learning took place. Make assessment quick but helpful to your future planning.

  • Give a quick three-question quiz. Have students use clickers to respond. Record the answers so you can collect the data later. If you don’t have clickers, have the students hold up different colored pieces of cardboard to represent their choices of responses. If the class is small enough, count the answers and record.

  • Ask a question about whether they liked the class. Use electronic clickers or colored cardboard. Give them 3 choices: “liked,” “didn’t like,” “neutral.”

  • Ask yourself if you like preparing for class in one hour or less. Transfer the time you used to spend doing all that unnecessary research on your class prep into working on your own publishable research.

  • Assign an in-class ungraded one minute paper asking questions such as: “What did you find most interesting about this topic or lecture? What do you still have questions about? What would like more information about?” These papers help you take roll, find out what the students still need on this topic, and give you the basis for next year’s course revision. On the next class day, take the first few minutes to address relevant leftovers before beginning the new topic for the day. Students love to see that their comments impact your course development.


Peak Performing Professors work effectively, spending only as much time in class preparation as needed to do a good job.

Relax in the confidence that you have a great process for class preparation that will make teaching and learning easy and fun.

© Copyright 2010 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3275 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Website:

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