Got Time? A Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors

Course instructors who teach online rank flexibility as one of the biggest motivators and benefits of teaching in the virtual environment, yet ‘time’ can also be a barrier to effective teaching. Instructors may find themselves either overwhelmed by the demands of teaching online or struggle to fit it into an already full schedule.

What is the best method to manage time when there are no set course hours, when the classroom is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? What teaching activities do online course instructors spend most of their time on?  In this post I begin by addressing  the differences in the time investment required for teaching an online versus face-to-face class. I’ll follow with a Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors based on the latest research in online instruction from credible sources including feedback from professors who teach online and in face-to-face credit classes.

Time to Teach: Classroom versus Online?
How does the time investment differ between online and face-to-face teaching?  What does the course instructor spend time doing if not lecturing as in a face-to-face class? With expanding enrollments of online education, faculty and higher education administrators are asking these questions. There is considerable literature that addresses the topic. I found several studies that support each side, yet the consensus among the research suggests that teaching online involves less of a time commitment from the course instructor than does a face-to-face class (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012), (Lazarus, 2003). How much less was not clarified.

These findings are consistent with feedback from professors at my workplace. In a survey conducted recently with online instructors, I asked several questions about their teaching experience, including the average number of hours spent each week teaching their online course. The results were consistent with research in Teaching Courses Online: How Much Time Does It Take? Average number of hours, which did not include curriculum development time, set-up or development of course home page, was ten to twelve per week.  Further research needs to be done to identify best teaching practices, pedagogical methods and the skills associated with effective teaching online, rather than the number of hours it takes in comparison to face-to face.

What Online Instructors Spend Time On
It is worthwhile to analyze what instructors are spending their time on when teaching online. By identifying required behaviours and skills, we can begin to develop a model of skills required, and pedagogical training that is needed to support skill development. For the purpose of this post I’ve used this data to create a time management strategy tailored to online instructors.

Below are the five most mentioned teaching behaviours identified in the research and from the feedback of online instructors. The ranking begins with the teaching activity that involved the highest time commitment, and descends from there. This is not a scientific analysis, but I included the list to provide an overview of the most prevalent online teaching activities (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012).

  • Interacting with students: moderating discussion forums, responding to student emails
  • Evaluating student work: assignments, papers, discussion forums
  • Recording grades
  • Modifying and making changes to course materials and/or course home page
  • Addressing technical issues/course administration (not including grading)

Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors
Below is the customized strategy for instructors based upon the research and feedback mentioned earlier in this post.

1. Establish blocks of time each week for instructional activities. Online instructors appear to be most successful when scheduling one, two or three-hour time blocks into their calendar.

  • Make it a habit to log on daily to respond to questions, post materials or messages.
  • Larger blocks of time may be needed for evaluating student work.
  • Moderate discussions on set schedule. Rather than being involved each day, try to strategically participate, three times [days] in a given discussion week.

2. Communicate frequently with a concise messages on the announcement section of the course home page.

  • Communicating regularly with students using the announcement board, can save time. By anticipating questions, you might reduce the number of student emails. For example should you receive two or more questions from students (emails) of the same theme, consider posting a class announcement clarifying the given topic. If more than one student has a question on a concept or assignment, chances are several others do as well.
  • Outline for students’ how and when they will expect to hear from you with regards to questions and/or turn-around times on grading

3. Involve Students in Peer Grading and Peer-mentoring in Discussion Forums.

  • Interaction with students ranks as the top activity for instructors. Though it is high-quality exchanges between student and instructor that supports meaningful learning, peer-to-peer interaction can also enhance learning.
  • Consider a small group assignment, where a large class is divided into small groups. Create an activity where group members engage in discussion, and rate each others contributions at the end of the given time period. Another option is to create team of two or three students to be discussion facilitators for a given week. Each group would have a turn at being responsible for guiding the class discussion for an assigned week. Each group member would evaluate the other.

4.  Establish an efficient system for grading.

  • Grading, evaluating student assignments appears to take up much of the instructors time. Providing quality and constructive feedback is a critical component to online learning since this is one of the only ways students receive personal feedback from the instructor. This allows the student to learn and construct new knowledge.
  • Consider using a screen cast program for giving feedback on assignments, or record an audio clip of verbal feedback that you can email to students. This may be a time-saver.
  • Ensure your time is spent grading efficiently and that you are using all of the grading tools available through your LMS. Is there a more efficient way to grade the papers, while still giving quality feedback. In our system we discovered many professors were taking several unnecessary steps when grading.

5. Managing your time when teaching online. An excellent five-minute clip from COFA’s Learning to Teach Online series, by College of Fine Arts (COFA), The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, Australia.

Online instructors require a distinct set of pedagogical and time management skills based upon the uniqueness of the online learning environment. Activities that instructors implement when teaching online varies greatly from that of the face-to-face instructor.  A time management strategy that considers the factors and nuances of teaching online should include, a time blocking strategy, communicating frequently with students collectively in anticipation of potential questions, involving students in peer reviews and discussions, and creating an efficient grading strategy. If you have a time management strategy that works for you and would like to share it with us, please comment.

4 thoughts on “Got Time? A Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors

  1. 4. Establish an efficient system for grading. It states “In our system, we discovered many professors were taking several unnecessary steps when grading.” I would like to know what those unnecessary steps were.
    The video starts by stating that there are myths and misconceptions, but it fails to so which are the myths and misconceptions and which are not.


  2. Hi Debbie,
    Saying that teaching online involves no more or less time than a F2F class is near heresy at the University where I teach—-but, excluding development time, I agree with you. I don’t think that I spend any more time interacting with students online than I do in a F2F course and grading generally occurs outside of class anyway (except for oral presentations, perhaps). If I multiply the time I’m in class AND preparing for class in my F2F courses and then look at the time commitment for an online class—I find that often it is less. One way that I’ve found to reduce confusion and reduce time spent keeping students on track is to do a brief video that explains the assignment. Typically, these are 15 minutes, maximum and they have dramatically decreased the student emails asking for clarification of an assignment. No matter how carefully I try to express this in writing, it just has not been as effective as those brief videos. And….they take no more than about 30 minutes to prepare and record….still a pretty time efficient process.

    One caveat though, is that I think the online instructor has to avoid the trap of giving “collective feedback”. That does not help individual students and creates a feeling of distance and frustration between the student and instructor. So, individual feedback and supportive guidance are just as important in an online class as a F2F class.

    Thanks for promoting a discussion about this and I look forward to responses from other faculty.


    1. Hi Marsha,
      Great to hear from you again! Thank you for mentioning the excellent idea of recording a video to explain an assignment to students. This is not only a method that will clarify details for students, but makes the class more personal. Students appear to respond positively to video format for certain aspects of the course. As you mention keeping the message to 15 minutes is ideal. The time invested in preparing the video I would think is well worth the effort in terms of time saved in responding to student emails with questions about the assignment had it not been clarified.

      I agree with you that collective feedback should not replace individual feedback. Individual feedback is critical to the online format, it is one of the primary methods for students to develop and build knowledge. There are times when collective feedback can be effective in clarifying concepts that the instructor identifies as a pattern of misunderstanding among several students, though certainly does not replace one-to-one interaction.

      Thanks for your comment Marsha, and I too look forward to hearing from other faculty! Debbie


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