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
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
teaching large classes
On the first day of class, I often say something like this to my students: “Nothing floats my boat more than great discussion. Nothing promotes great discussion like having completed the readings. And nothing promotes completing the readings like having points attached to it.”
Here’s a set of questions about large classes that I’m thinking we ought to be discussing more than we are.
1. How many students make it a large class? Teachers who do and don’t teach large classes have their opinions, but it’s not clear who has the right answer. Often faculty views seem related to the size of their college or university. I once consulted at a small liberal arts college where I was asked to sign a petition against classes enrolling more than 35 students. At about the same time, I saw a list of the 10 courses most often taken by beginning students at my R1 university. Only two—English composition and physical education—enrolled fewer than 30 students, and most had many more.
Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.
The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.
Often faculty who teach large classes (and some who don’t) fantasize about sitting down and working individually with students. For many of us that’s the ideal teaching scenario, but for most of us teaching realities are far removed from this ideal. You can’t tutor individual students when faced with 100 of them. Or can you?
The content of many courses is too focused on the facts—those details that students memorize, use to answer test questions, and then promptly forget. That criticism has been levied against many introductory college-level courses, especially by those of us who think faculty are too focused on covering content. But is it a fair criticism? Do introductory courses ignore the higher-level thinking skills, like those identified on the Bloom taxonomy? Is the evidence empirical or anecdotal?
Online homework has great appeal for instructors, especially those teaching large courses. By using online assignments, instructors don’t have to collect, grade, and promptly return large quantities of homework assignments. Online programs provide instructors with feedback on student performance that can be used to modify the presentation of material in class. Online homework is also beneficial to students. They get feedback promptly, even more promptly than that provided by very conscientious instructors. Online homework can also be designed so that it allows students to work on areas that frequently cause trouble and/or on areas where the individual student is having difficulty.
The article that proposes these active-learning strategies is written for faculty who teach large-enrollment biology courses. But large courses share many similarities, and strategies often work well with a variety of content. Even so, most strategies need to be adapted so that they fit well with the instructor’s style, the learning needs of the students, and the configuration of course content.
The challenge of engaging students in a large, introductory political science course, motivated Christopher Soper [article referenced below] to start exploring whether music might help him better connect students and course content. He now opens every class session with a song, and selecting those songs is part of an extra-credit assignment in the course.
Frustrated with the traditional lecture format in an upper-level chemistry class that enrolled more than 100 students, and envious of my teaching assistants who spent time in small recitations working on problem solving with my students, I designed an approach I call the “The Front Row.” It brings a small group feel into a large classroom.