In At The Deep End: New Module, No Preparation

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It’s every lecturer’s nightmare: Due to a colleague’s sudden departure or illness, you’re handed an unwritten module to teach, starting in just one or two weeks. What can you do to avoid letting students down? 

Start with structure.

It can help to make your problem visual, so print out the learning objectives for the module (if these don’t exist, now’s the time to formulate them) and the actual teaching schedule. Here’s what you need to know create your preparation roadmap:

  • How many lectures and seminar sessions do you need to prepare?
  • What activities must or should take place in the first session(s), e.g. introduction to the topic, getting-to-know-you activities, seminar or project group creation?
  • What basic topics, methods or concepts must students master at the beginning of the term, by the middle, and at the end?
  • Are there any scheduled events to be aware of, such as a reading week, or a field trip or speaker to arrange?
  • When are assessments due?

One step at a time.

Now you can create a firm plan for your first three sessions, and sketch out the remaining ones. You need to prioritise being ready for the first week and just beyond it, and prepare for the following sessions once you’ve cleared that hurdle.

Ensure that you have a complete student list, that any WebCT or similar site required has been set up, and that you and students know when and where sessions will be held—sometimes a sudden staff departure can mean these crucial details have also been overlooked.

If a module guide exists, this may include a list of sessions originally planned, which you can simply follow. It should also include a reading list. If anything on it is unfamiliar, start catching up now.

If the guide is unwritten or incomplete, prepare it alongside your first session. Use guides from other modules at the same level of your programme as models. These will show you the level of detail students expect, and help you avoid duplication.

Speaking of which, do not work in isolation: confer right away with everyone else who teaches on the programme to ensure that you deliver unique and useful material, and do not assume knowledge students have not yet mastered. 

Pay particular attention to assessments. Make sure essay topics, guidance and marking schemes are ready within the first three weeks. If exams or practical assessments need to be prepared or approved, start immediately, and ask a senior academic for help.

Schedule your development process.

Create and stick to a daily schedule of writing the next lecture, preparing and distributing readings, and developing activities. Try to stay two weeks in advance at minimum. If you are lucky, a reading week or holiday may give you a chance to race forwards.

Always be on the lookout for any way that you can extend your preparations. For example, you could ask a colleague to contribute a guest lecture as a way to buy time, or consider having students prepare a seminar or session. Devoting one session to a film and discussion, guest speaker, student presentations, or field trip may also be useful.

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