Engaging a Village: Effective Strategies to Reach Every Corner of the Lecture Hall

engaging a village of students

As educators, we often struggle to provide an effective learning environment for the students who are easily distracted and clamoring for more support. Technology in the classroom has the potential to engage students and allow us to be more hands-on with hundreds of students at a time, making students feel supported while engaging them in the classroom community.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning has long been regarded as an effective technique to develop students’ higher-level thinking skills. Presented with a specific problem, students learn more effectively by applying new knowledge to evaluate, analyze, and eventually solve the problem.

To this end, we create worksheets specific to each class. These worksheets contain problems and information that cannot be found in the book, thereby also providing an incentive for students to attend class. These worksheets consist of a double-sided page containing three to four problems that flow with the classroom presentation. The problems scaffold the material as the class progresses, adding additional complexity with each problem. This method also indulges students’ need for distraction by redirecting their attention while keeping them on-topic. Evidence of the effectiveness of this method is that it is consistently one of the most commented-on items in student evaluations:

It was not easy to lose focus since you were always engaging in something.

The worksheets completed during each class really helped my understanding of the course material and its application.

With the growing development and promotion of Open Educational Resources (OER), content is available in many disciplines to aid problem creation.

The Flipped Classroom

For the handouts and flipped classroom approach to be effective, students must come to class prepared. To accomplish this, we require students to complete pre-reading assignments using the LearnSmart adaptive learning feature “Connect.” Connect is the online content available in concert with the course McGraw Hill textbook. Similar content from other publishers include WileyPlus (Wiley), CNOW (Cengage), and MyLab (Pearson). Students’ completion of assigned pre-readings or quizzes through these platforms is automatically documented and graded. Alternative methods might be to assign a brief online pre-quiz in a learning management system or have students turn in a printed pre-quiz as they enter the classroom.

Teaching Assistants Lead Neighborhoods Within the Village

Anonymity in the classroom is a barrier to learning. To provide more one-on-one contact in a large classroom, we have several teaching assistants (TAs) attend the lecture, each assigned to a particular area of the classroom. Our rooms are generally conducive to 4-5 TAs. A room of 100 students, on the other hand, might do well with just two.

The TAs arrive 15 minutes before class to greet incoming students. The students sitting in these sections become “their” students. In this way, 250+ students now identify with smaller, more personal communities in the classroom. The TAs monitoring these groups can see which students need extra guidance and encourage those who might otherwise tune out.

As it is essential for the TAs to arrive in the class prepared to answer student questions, we use the LearnSmart feature to assign pre-readings to the TAs. Prior to class, we also provide the TAs with solutions to the worksheets. Thus, when students begin working through these problems, the TAs are ready to field questions and efficiently help students understand the more challenging problems.

One student commented specifically on the effectiveness of this technique:

Because my major is so small and we work in groups of less than 20 in a studio/workshop setting, I often hate attending lectures. The instructor made this big lecture hall feel small. We also accomplished a lot during lecture and it was extremely valuable to attend.

Invite the Technology

To take advantage of our students’ captivation with technology, we use iClicker polling devices. We incorporate iClicker questions throughout every lecture and use student responses to assign either a minimal participation score or bonus points. The students engage as soon as a clicker question appears on the overhead screen and they are eager to respond. We encourage students to engage with each other to come up with the answer. We can use a question to drive home a concept, to measure how well an idea is getting through to them, or even to create a little levity in the midst of a difficult concept. Sometimes student feedback causes us to revisit difficult concepts when it is clear from their iClicker responses that there is a misunderstanding. The iClicker system also has a “reef” polling option, which allows students to use their cell phones instead of a separate device. Other polling devices include: “Poll Everywhere, Kahoot!, PollDaddy, Top Hat, and Socrative. All are widely used in the classroom and are free or of minimal cost.

Flip the Classroom – Physically!

Wireless presentation technology allows us to teach from anywhere in the room. Using an iPad or tablet, we transmit our PowerPoint or worksheet to the overhead screen. Thus, we can demonstrate how to solve a worksheet problem, writing on the tablet from the back of the room, with contributions from students we could not easily engage from the front of the classroom.

Our university utilizes WePresent technology, but there are many wireless or “mirroring” technologies available. Make sure the technology you choose is compatible with the device(s) you have at hand. Also, “writing-while-walking-and-talking” is an acquired skill; practice before going live!

The Results

We have been using these methods for nearly three years. Feedback from students has been tremendous, and although we do not require attendance, the lecture hall is packed, and students are excited to learn. We think we have accomplished our ultimate goal: turning a large classroom into a close-knit community, actively engaged and learning. These students work hard. They challenge us, motivate each other and rarely pack up before class is over.

Leanne Adams, CPA, MSA, is an instructor-in-residence at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches Principles of Financial Accounting and Intermediate Accounting I. She also utilizes the Service Learning pedagogy to teach the University’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, enrolling over 125 students per year completing an average of 750+ tax returns each tax season. Leanne began her career at KPMG and focused primarily in the financial and real estate industries before joining academia.

Suzanne Cansler, CPA, MSA, is an instructor-in-residence at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches Governmental Accounting to graduate students and Principles of Financial Accounting to undergraduates. As a CPA, her primary focus was the New York government, where she worked at the Federal, State, and Local levels.