Party pieces

At a severely practical level, it will save you a lot of hassle if you have a few "party pieces" to hand, to trot out when required.

When I was the warden of a campus, responsible for whatever happened out of hours, I got a phone call one evening from a very apologetic evening-class lecturer. "I'm very sorry to trouble you," he said, "but I am not going to be able to take my Italian class this evening. I wonder if you could go over to the room and put a note on the door?" I agreed, but enquired about the problem; had his car broken down, perhaps? "No," he replied, "I've just got in from work to find my wife dead on the kitchen floor—I rang you at once!" Shock induces strange priorities.

When I worked in further education (community college) we frequently got "yellow perils" in our pigeon-holes; orders to "cover" for colleagues who could not take their class. Sometimes, if the scheme of work was available, or the students were working on a project, it was just a matter of putting your head through the door and asking them to get on with it in the library. But sometimes you needed to go in and teach them something.

The challenge of the "one-off", which is the same whether you are covering for an absence, or delivering a keynote address at a prestigious conference, is very much the same:

So there is more of a "performance" element to such a session than usual, although it is of course important that it should not swamp the content.

Choosing the topic

This is clearly an opportunity to do a session on something which interests you, but your enthusiasm for Amish quilts or the ground-breaking musical innovation of the Temperance Seven may not go down too well. Choose something which applies across a fair range of courses if possible, and comes at least within the "Could learn" sector of the scheme of work. (Most colleagues will not thank you for barging in with some "Must learn" stuff, if they are just away for a session or two. It can play havoc with their schemes of work.)

Something of the order of:

(adjusted to the required level) are informal ideas which can easily plug in to prior experience rather than formal knowledge, which lend themselves to exercises and discussion or practice, can be moved up or down the academic scale as required (the Harvard example is perhaps more academic), and about which you can teach—and the students can learn—something useful in an hour or so. You can no doubt think of similar examples in your broad disciplinary area.

Designing the Session

Your package

Have a grab-and-go package to hand, containing:


This only works for a single session, but at least it buys you some time to work out how to slot in when you have to cover for a colleague's more prolonged absence.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Click here to send to a friend     Print

This site is independent and self-funded, although the contribution of the Higher Education Academy to its development via the award of a National Teaching Fellowship, in 2004 has been greatly appreciated. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am of course not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome. I am not on FaceBook or LinkedIn.

Back to top