M9 - Managing units


Module 9 focuses on taking a planning approach to unit co-ordination. It is designed to encourage you to think through the planning process and develop good habits, which ultimately will minimise preparation time. Central to this module is the establishment of a detailed action plan for the effective and successful management of units.

To explore this process further, you may find the linked website of interest. It reports on an ALTC project to support and enhance subject co-ordinators' leadership and management of sessional teaching teams: CLASS: Co-ordinators Leading Advancement of Sessional Staff (CLASS, n.d.)

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this module you will be able to:

  • effectively manage and communicate with students, tutors and other stakeholders in a unit
  • organise and utilise resources and conduct procedures to facilitate effective learning and efficient implementation of your unit.

Module Structure

This module covers the following topics:

Reflection on unit management

We begin the Module by developing a hypothetical scenario and asking you to canvass not only the procedures laid out by your university, but also the practices of some of your more experienced colleagues.

Task 9.1

Assume that your Head of Section has asked you to act as unit co-ordinator for MATH1000, a 580 student unit covering an introduction to basic mathematics for first year students from disciplines other than mathematics. You have been informed that this unit will be taught by two lecturers in parallel, with three lectures a week across 13 weeks. The usual practice for this unit is to run a mid-term test as well as a final examination, along with a number of regular assignments. The students in this unit will also participate in weekly tutorials and weekly computing sessions in smaller groups where they will explore the use of MATLAB. Given the number of students, you have been allocated 30 tutorial assistants who will be paid to run tutorial sessions and mark assignments associated with the tutorials and computing sessions.

With this scenario in mind we are asking you to:

  • Discuss the following questions with someone in your section, for instance the First Year Coordinator, a more experienced colleague or other colleagues teaching similar units locally or elsewhere.
  • Write a list of actions that are necessary for the smooth execution of these tasks, taking into account the due dates assigned to these tasks and the formal procedures that need to be implemented.
  • Develop a timetable for the execution of these tasks.

At this stage, it should be a rough plan, as we will develop it further during the module.

Some starting points are:

  1. What are your responsibilities and what do you need to follow up on regarding timetabling and room allocation?
  2. What are the important issues pertaining to the format and content of the unit outline?
  3. What material needs to be placed on the learning management (LMS) site? How will you ensure students can easily navigate the LMS and find the material quickly?
  4. Do you have the right number of teaching assistants, what will be their tasks, and what directions do you need to give them? Have you defined your expectations of these staff members, how they will provide feedback and deal with students? How will you ensure that these procedures are followed?
  5. What needs to be done to ensure that the computing sessions run smoothly? How will you convey this information to your teaching assistants?
  6. Do you have to identify learning resources and what are your responsibilities in terms of the production and delivery of these (e.g. lecture notes, tutorial sheets, assessment items and reading material)? How will the teaching support staff access this material?
  7. What procedures need to be executed in relation to late enrollees and international exchange students?
  8. What are the university's or students' expectations in relation to access to marks and marked examination papers? What procedures do you have to follow? How will you defend the results? What would be your response if a student pleads for higher marks?
  9. How will you deal with errors in marking and/or mark submission?
  10. How will you deal with deferred and supplementary examinations?

Now we consider the various issues that have been raised.

Timetabling and room allocation

Even if you don't have responsibility for timetabling you need to ensure that this is done appropriately to match your unit requirements. For example, finding out during week 1 that the 200 enrolled students don't fit into the 100 seat lecture theatre is something you might have been able to avoid by checking enrolment numbers before teaching starts. Of course this number is subject to last-minute changes, but attention to detail like this is vital for the smooth running of the unit.

Task 9.2

For a unit that you are teaching, check your university's enrolment system and find the exact student numbers for each of your classes. Look up room attributes on the university's system and write a list of facilities available in your teaching spaces.

Unit outline

In the last module (Module 8), we considered how the unit design is communicated in the unit outline. This document should also contain a lot of ‘nuts-and-bolts’ about the unit and its management.

You should clearly communicate the time commitment you expect from your students, ensuring that it is realistic and matches learning activities. On the other hand, the unit outline explains to students what to expect from you, e.g. office hours, face-to-face teaching and your involvement in online communication (including the creation of effective communication channels).

Details such as deadlines for assignments should be clearly outlined before semester to allow students to plan their studies. Where possible, check with parallel units to ensure that assignments and tests are not scheduled at the same time.

Take care because once the outline is disseminated to students it is your contract with them and you will have to adhere to it. For example, you may not be able to change the nature of assessment items nor their weightings. Also be sure that you are referring to the latest university policies and procedures; inconsistencies between your unit outline and university policy are potentially quite serious.

Task 9.3

Take the unit outline for a unit you are teaching and read it carefully, checking that it matches your expectations for the unit. Reflect on how this unit outline could be changed to improve the information communicated to students, remembering that your university may have a template for unit outlines, or a list of minimum required information.

Learning management system sites

Universities have different requirements, but it is good practice to have your LMS site populated with content at least a week before semester starts. This will give your students an opportunity to view the material, start planning the semester's activities and engage in advanced reading. It should also provide details of prerequisites and could incorporate a diagnostic test to support these.

You will need to give all relevant teaching staff access to the LMS site, possibly with different access levels (e.g. site management versus teacher access). Tutors may need access to the mark-entering component. Module 11 considers this, and its potential learning benefits, in more detail.

Teaching assistance, especially for large cohorts

At the beginning of semester, it is good practice to arrange a meeting of all teaching staff involved in the unit where you can explain the unit organisation. Clearly define your expectations of them - for example, marking standards and deadlines and keeping attendance records accurately - and foreshadow any further meetings where you can follow up and ensure everyone is on target. Detail how you will deal with late submission of work, and academic misconduct such as plagiarism.

You should also invite feedback from teaching staff throughout semester. This is part of your reflective practice (see Module 7). Here is a simple survey used in some mathematics subjects at La Trobe University to reduce the number of meetings that need to be held with tutors. You may like to consider something similar.

If you have particular expectations for the learning activities that you want to take place in the tutorials, you need to explain them. For example, your tutors may themselves have been taught in tutorials where the tutor wrote on the board while the students sat in neat rows and copied down the solutions, and they may expect to run their tutorials this way: they may have no other mental image of a tutorial. However, your vision for the tutorials to support your subject may involve students actively solving problems with the tables pushed together into groups, collaborating, sharing their work, and getting valuable feedback on their learning from a tutor who does not give a mini-lecture (see Module 6). You may need to talk to them about answering a student question with a probing question, rather than giving a quick answer. Many universities run general training sessions for sessional staff, but your tutors will rely on you for specific guidance about mathematics tutorials, and any unit-specific expectations you have.

Task 9.4

Watch this video trigger on ‘Starting the semester’ from the CLASS project:

(glefoe, 2010)

Remembering that this video is supposed to be a trigger for discussion, answer the following:

  • What were the strengths of this meeting?
  • What other topics could have been addressed?

(If you are a tutor, your responses to this task are particularly important to the other participants.) Post your response to this task at the discussion board .

Consistent marking of assessment tasks is important to ensure equity for all students. You must clearly specify criteria, provide detailed solutions to all mathematical questions and give a detailed marking scheme. Annotated solutions including detailed mathematical reasoning and logical presentation are also useful, as this will give your markers an indication of how much emphasis you place on the various aspects. This will be explored further in Module 10.

When marking examination papers, one strategy to ensure consistency is to gather the markers together in a room so that they can discuss special cases and compare standards against each other. If you cannot gather your markers together, make sure you are available to arbitrate on the finer points of interpreting the solutions, and disseminate information to other markers as it arises. Some lecturers allocate the marking question-by-question in order to achieve consistency.

Learning resources

In large classes or classes delivered remotely, students often have limited access to teaching staff and limited opportunities to ask questions. It is common practice in mathematics and statistics teaching to hand out printed study material to students, for example in the form of lecture notes, tutorial exercises or workbooks. It is important that students are provided with a comprehensive set of notes along with worked solutions to both salient examples and set problems. In this way they can identify their misconceptions or get useful hints on how to proceed. Initially you might only distribute skeleton solutions; this way the students do not receive the entire detail from the outset, but do have hints that help them progress. However, at some stage students should see an entire solution so they may check their work, and this should be presented as a complete logical solution, as you would expect them to present to you; these can be handed out and/or distributed through the LMS.

If some of the above material is to be sold through the university bookshop then you will need to give the bookshop access to such material well in advance of the semester. If you are handing out assignment instructions on paper, these will need to be prepared and printed in advance and also posted on the LMS site. Printing assignment sheets on the day they are to be handed out can be very stressful, especially if the printer/photocopier is off-line!

Bookshops also need to order sufficient numbers of copies of textbooks well in advance to have them available by the start of semester. If you use a textbook, be aware of this; the same holds for special software. Don't forget that textbook publishers are usually willing to provide ’desktop’ copies of prescribed textbooks plus associated learning resources such as solutions manuals, PowerPoint slides and multimedia material. You should feel free to contact your publisher and ask for free copies for all teaching staff in the unit.

Computing sessions

If your unit incorporates computing sessions using specialist mathematical or statistical software, arrange for IT to install such software well before teaching commences. You as the person responsible for the unit need to test software and hardware, and you should allow plenty of time for this in case the software needs reinstalling.

As with tutorials, you need to communicate your expectations for the computing sessions to the tutors. First of all, you should expect them to try out the software and be competent and confident with it (and you may have to pay them for some training time). Explain to the tutors whether the goal of these classes is for students to establish fluency in MATLAB or SPSS, or to provide insight into the concepts being taught in the subject; you want them to be emphasising the right things. Give them strategies for keeping the students on task, and setting guidelines such as “no games, no Google”. Again, seek feedback from them as to whether the tasks you are setting are too long or too short, and whether the tasks are helping students achieve the intended learning outcomes for the lessons and the unit.

Learning support mechanisms

Put students in contact with relevant staff and services if your university provides mathematical or counselling support. Decide on office hours for yourself and relevant teaching staff, and communicate this information to the students. Some universities use peer support structures, and if yours is one of these, you should arrange for such sessions. . Module 11 considers this, and its potential learning benefits, in more detail.

Task 9.5

Find out what mathematics learning support, and other academic support, is available for your students and when it is available.

Check that this information is included in your unit outline and communicate this information to your students in the classroom and via the LMS.

Special needs students and students at risk

Students at risk can be identified, as a first step, by checking regularly who does not submit assignments or who is performing poorly. In a large unit, a quick email directing students to peer support services may be enough to get them back on track. Students often appreciate direct contact with the lecturer; this shows that you care. Some universities take a united approach to first year support that may involve you helping to identify students at risk.

Your university's counselling and equity centres make special arrangements that may involve extra work for you during the semester, as well as the provision of alternative examinations. You should be very flexible in dealing with these because some students have quite severe illnesses, for example depression.

You might be contacted concerning study arrangements for international exchange students, in particular asking if your unit meets their home university requirements. At the end of semester, you may need to provide separate information on a student's performance. Note that for some of the students English will be a second, or even a third, language.

When you teach large classes, you will find that quite often students enrol late, and you will have to make decisions on how to get them started, how to assist them to catch up on missed classes, and possibly whether to offer them extended assignment deadlines. During the semester you will find some students miss deadlines due to illness, absence for a funeral or travel to compete at sporting events, to name just a few. Have a clear policy, and ensure that you keep track of any special arrangements.

Plagiarism policy

Every university has different ways of dealing with academic misconduct, but plagiarism is always regarded as a very serious issue. Often the unit outline will contain information on what is expected from the students, emphasising that academic misconduct will be penalised and may lead to exclusion from the university.

Much of the material supplied by universities in this area concerns referencing and use of text-matching software; it is easy for mathematics students to think none of this applies to them. Think how you might explain academic integrity and the difference between collaboration and collusion on assessments where everyone is “supposed to get the same answer”, as some students put it. Can you design assessment questions which involve, say, a written explanation or a conclusion to be drawn after a calculation? If your assignments involve the writing of code or submission of spreadsheets, then you may use alternative electronic methods of plagiarism detection.

Your university may also have policies that apply to you as the teacher in this area. For example, you may be required to vary assessment items from year to year, and also to make sure that the workload for students in your subject is not too high. Neither of these, of course, justifies misconduct, but they are considered to be factors which increase its prevalence.

Task 9.6

Think about what strategies you could employ to deal with, or pre-empt plagiarism in assignments. Discuss this with colleagues and your teaching assistants. Are your strategies appropriate? Do they fit within university policy? If not, revise them.

Timetabling and setting of examinations, grading and submission of results

Organising examinations and other assessment tasks is time consuming but very important, and appropriate resources should be allocated to these. It is good practice, and even an essential part of the process, to prepare a full set of solutions while setting the examination. Academics face many distractions and it is difficult to set aside the dedicated time that this task requires. Writing solutions will help you identify errors, or even ill-posed questions; it will also help you ensure that you have the right amount of material for the time allocated. Most universities require the examination to be checked by an independent colleague and this is also an invaluable part of the process. If your schedule allows it, it is good practice to go back and rewrite the solutions just prior to the students sitting the examination. Fresh eyes often spot errors. These procedures also apply to assignment questions.

You will also have to calculate marks and grades, using the appropriate weightings, and supply this information to the university in a specified format and using standard codes.

It may save you a lot of time if you get clarification on this topic before beginning the grading process.

Task 9.7

Talk to a colleague and ask about their strategies for dealing with the collation of marks and the grading process. Develop a plan for managing of the grading process in your unit.

Special considerations

Here it is important to keep track of any special arrangements that you have made, with individual students including, for example, variations to the assessment components where one because a student has been missed one due to illness. Your university may have policies and forms relating to large or formal assessment items; you should advise students who contact you directly to use these if appropriate.

Task 9.8

Implement a journal or other filing system for keeping track of special considerations. Update and check it regularly, and ensure there is a backup-copy.

Review and conclusion

"The key to curriculum planning is to forge educationally sound and logical links between planned intentions (expressed as objectives), course content, teaching and learning methods and the assessment of student learning while taking into account student characteristics." Cannon and Newble (2000, p. 142)

In the next module, we spend time exploring different types of assessment tasks, which is an important task in the managing of a unit.

Relation to Assessment Task 3

In Assessment task three, one option is to design a unit, and to prepare the unit outline for it; this module relates directly to that task.

For full details of the options in Assessment task 3, the submission date and the marking rubric, please consult the unit outline.


  • Cannon, R., & Newble, D. (2000). A Handbook for teachers in universities and colleges: A guide to improving teaching methods (4th ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • CLASS. (n.d.). Coordinators leading advancement of sessional staff. Retrieved February 22, 2011, from http://classleadership.com/
  • glefoe. (2010). 1. Starting the Semester. (Video file). Video posted to http://youtu.be/-WuhCt-mVak

Updated: 11 Apr 2013