Teaching Classes That Meet in Blocks

To meet the needs of today’s students, colleges and universities are offering more courses in block time formats. These courses meet once a week for three hours, extended hours over fewer weeks, or on weekends. Typically, the students who take these courses are working full time, are interested in career advancement, and want classes that keep them engaged.

I have taught three-hour evening classes for graduate students in teacher education for the past 11 years. I’d like to share the four-part plan I’ve developed that keeps students engaged while providing a robust intellectual experience.

Get them in, get them focused—My first goal is to get students thinking about the class, not about their bad day at work or what their children are doing at home. When setting up the room before class starts, I post a list of everything we will be doing during the next three hours so that students know what we have to accomplish, and late arrivals or those who leave early know what they missed. I always post a tough thought question on the screen. Some of these questions end up on our exams, some review reading material, and all of them are important and guide the rest of the session.

Present/ lecture/explain new material—After the opening discussion, I present the new material for that session. Most weeks, my students are assigned two or three chapters or articles to read before class. I tell them to bring the readings; in class we “bring them to life.” When I can, I project the author’s picture on the screen or show a video clip of the author discussing his/her work. Many authors now have these clips on their websites.

After a video clip, I project my notes on the screen, stating that the class doesn’t have to wonder what I wanted them to get out of the reading, as I will tell them. However, my notes are frequently questions or redirects back to the reading: “Go to the third paragraph on page 317, reread it, and explain the author’s opinion in your own words.” I also challenge students to question a writer’s research or background: “Having read this seminal work by author X, list three critiques of his/her research.” They often discuss their answers with a partner, which helps to break up the time. Some report on these exchanges in the whole-class discussion that follows, thereby giving me an opportunity to elaborate or add points they may have missed.

Apply the new material—Students need to thoroughly understand new material before they are asked to apply it. Generally, those applications occur in small groups. After having read about high school curricula, groups are asked to design a curricular change in their schools. They find directions and relevant questions on the screen. Authentic tasks work best. If the groups are doing something members see themselves doing in the future, they tackle the exercises with a lot more enthusiasm. I don’t grade this group work, but instead use it as a springboard for discussion.

Review, conclude, and assess—To end class, I might do something like put up large posters around the room, each with the name of a theorist whom we have studied recently. I ask students to go to two of the boards and write down their most vivid memories of that theorist. They cannot repeat what others have written. As they write, I walk around the room and talk with them, providing individual attention and answering questions.

I may use a short reading that summarizes, adds to, or is related to the lecture. Students read this handout and then tell me why I chose that reading for my conclusion.

Dr. Mary Clement is an associate professor at the Charter School of Education & Human Sciences, Berry College, GA.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, August-September, 2008.