What a load

This is an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while.  It’s easy to say things like “I teach 3 courses” or whatever, but there is a wide range in effort depending on the level of the course, whether it is a new prep, whether it is lower- or upper-division, how many students, etc.  If everything breaks the right way, a “2 course” load can be worse than a “4 course” load.  For example, if the former involves new upper-division preps with lots of students and the latter involves two sections each of two intro courses you’ve taught before.

So, I’ve developed a points scale that I call What A Load of Points, or WALoP.  If you think your teaching load packs a wallop, this is your chance to prove it!  The scale is generally based on my own experiences and there is a bit of a “punchline” at the end that will make the scale even more useful.  You might be able to guess this ahead of time.

As usual, my bias here is that I’m talking about Physics-related fields, and about situations where you are teaching several courses.  I don’t have the luxury of teaching graduate level courses, so I’ve left that out.  The reality is that most people in Physics who are teaching graduate level courses have low teaching loads.  I suspect that one could use my point values below for an upper-division course as a proxy for a traditional graduate course and something smaller for a seminar type of course.  Note that I’m going to treat labs separately from regular courses.

New preps
Obviously, a teaching a new course is more difficult than repeating a course.  However, my thought (and experience) is that it is also more difficult to prepare a new upper-division course than a lower-division course.  Also, it is much more difficult to develop a course if you have to do it in situ, i.e., you have minimal advanced warning and are continuing to do major prep work as you teach.  Basically, being able to plan ahead of time lets you be more efficient.  So, here is my WALoP scale for new preps:

20 WALoP for a new upper-division prep in situ
15 WALoP for a new lower-division prep in situ
16 WALoP for a new upper-division prep where you had significant advanced warning
12 WALoP for a new lower-division prep with warning

3 WALoP bonus for a new upper-division course you never took yourself (e.g., something like Plasma Physics or Solid State Physics that isn’t part of the core of most Physics programs; I’ve really hated doing things like this)

Repeat preps
Obviously, it’s easier to teach a course the second or more time around.  I’m assuming that it doesn’t get much easier after the second time because there still is the grading, modifying homework and exams, looking over the material to keep yourself on track, helping students, etc.

10 WALoP for an upper-division prep you’ve done before
8 WALoP for a lower-division prep you’ve done before

Multiple sections
As with repeat preps, it’s easier to teach multiple sections of a course rather than multiple different courses.  There are still the issues of grading and helping students, but there is also an efficiency of scale.  I.e, it is a little easier to grade 50 total exams from two sections of the same class, than 25 exams each from two classes.

8 WALoP for the second section of an upper-division prep
7 WALoP for the third or subsequent section of an upper-division course (presumably very rare)
6 WALoP for the second section of a lower-division prep
5 WALoP for the third or subsequent section of a lower-division prep

Grading support
Grading is already included in the previous scores, but not everybody has to grade their own courses and I’ve assumed a typical class size of 20-25 students.

-3 WALoP per prep if you have graders, except…
-2 WALoP per second or subsequent section if you have graders

If you do not have graders, calculate a correction for the amount of grading, by determining the average number of students per section:

-3 WALoP if it is less than 10.0
-2 WALoP for 10.0-14.9
-1 WALoP for 15.0-19.9
+1 WALoP for 25.0-29.9
+2 WALoP for 30.0-34.9

I’ve set this up on a “per weekly hour” basis because labs can have differing numbers of credits.  So, a lab that meets for three hours per week (or perhaps 3*50 minutes = 2.5 hours) is worth three times as much as one that meets an hour per week.  These numbers might be a little high if you have significant lab support.

4 WALoP per weekly hour for a new prep
3 WALoP per weekly hour for prep you’ve done before
2 WALoP per weekly hour for the second or subsequent section

If you are part of a team-taught course, use your best judgment, allowing for the fact that the total effort for the instructors will probably be something like 150% of the total effort if one person were teaching.  (I’ve never done this, so I’m guessing.)

If you are teaching a combined cross-listed course where the material and assignments are the same, add 1 WALoP for the extra administrative issues like keeping two set of grades, etc.  However, add 3 WALoP if there are some different assignments for the two groups of students.  Also, count the combined course as one course as far as calculating the correction for the amount of grading.  For example, suppose you have a lower-division cross-listed course that you’ve taught before and the assignments are the same.  There are 16 students in each of the two course numbers.  You get 8 WALoP for the course, plus 1 for cross-listing, plus 2 WALoP for the extra grading load (assuming you don’t have a grader) for a total of 11.

Research credit
For student-faculty research for credit or for senior thesis types of projects, count 1 WALoP per student-credit hour being taken (I originally had this at 1.5, but changed my mind; if you get lucky and a student is genuinely helping your research along, you might want to waive this WALoP completely).  Thus, if you have 1 student taking 2 credits, and two others taking 3 credits, you get 8 WALoP.  You may have to modify this if you have a weird credit system.

What does this all mean?
Now the punchline, the WALoP scale is intended to be something like the number of hours per week you have to work during the semester on teaching.  This won’t be exact, but I set up the scale to correspond to my experience which maybe can be generalized somewhat.

Hopefully, you are all still awake and wondering what my typical WALoP values are.  It turns out that my long-term average as a tenure-track/tenured professor is 31 WALoP.  It has ranged from 19 to 50 (in consecutive semesters, no less).  The 50 was hell because I had to develop two upper-division classes at the same time with no advanced warning, plus one of them was a class I had never taken.  For the latter, I was often spending 3-5 hours the night before the morning class working on that day’s lecture.  I had a few times where I was 12 hours away from teaching the class and had nothing prepared, and still had to sleep, too.  (For the non-science people out there, this was a rather technical class for which a lot of specific material needed to be covered in depth.  Even half-killing myself on the prep, I still got complaints in my evaluations about the level of course being too low.)  The best part of this story is that I never taught the class again, so the effort was pretty much wasted.

The 50 was an isolated occurrence (as was the 19), but I had several years in a row where I was averaging above 35, coinciding with having external research funding (punishment?).  I seem to be back up to around 35 for the foreseeable future due to some new preps coming up.  Teaching is nominally 60% of my job (but really more like 70%), so I guess a WALoP of 35 is about right.

Other examples
Someone at a community college might have a five course load, but all lower-division and with multiple sections of a course.  For example, two sections of two different courses, plus a third course.  For all new preps with advanced warning, that’s a high 12+6+12+6+12=48, but the next time it is 8+6+8+6+8=36, reasonable if the job is something like 80% teaching.

A cruel undergraduate department/institution might stick someone with three different courses in their first semester.  If one of them is upper-division and they are informed ahead of time, that’s still 16+12+12=40, which is pretty high if there are research expectations.  The worst load we have given to a new professor is two sections each of two lower-division courses, which is 12+6+12+6=36, still pretty high, but at least we generally keep the newbies out of significant service activities.  (BTW, I don’t have any input to course loads in my department, and I also think that’s still too high given the student-faculty research expectations.)  My first semester load swapped out the second course and replaced it with a 3-hour per week lab, and I had little advanced warning for the regular class so that was 15+6+12+6=39.  I wrote an NSF grant proposal that semester, but again I had no significant service obligations.

And there you have it!  This has helped me more clearly see why some semesters seemed so much harder than others despite not having a lot of students or a lot of sections.  I hope it is of some use to you, or at least some entertainment value.


2 thoughts on “What a load

  1. This was fun. I came out at 53 with no new preps and confirmed that this semester sucks as much as I thought it did.

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