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One of the unavoidable realities of working in a large university is teaching large classes. While dealing with over 50 or 100 students in one class presents unique challenges, there are strategies that can make the task not only manageable, but also productive and enjoyable for you and your students.
Presenting a lecture is a common teaching practice in large undergraduate classes and can be an effective means of relaying information. If you rely entirely on lecture, however, you may find yourself losing your students very quickly. Research suggests that most people can listen attentively for only about fifteen minutes at a time, so think about condensing information into mini-lectures interspersed with other activities that force students to become more involved with the course material and responsible for their own learning.
When you do lecture, make sure that you are communicating in ways that are interesting to the audience. With your first words your goal is to capture the students’ attention. You may begin with a question or a story. Throughout the lecture, watch students’ faces for evidence of attentiveness and comprehension. Ask questions and be prepared to rephrase information or provide an additional example. Also remember that an individual has an average attention span of fifteen minutes, so plan changes in delivery accordingly. (Return to top)
Because students in your class will have varying learning styles, you will want to make use of a variety of ways of conveying information to them. Using media and other non-print materials in addition to written and verbal information can help ensure that you are reaching as many of your students as possible. This might include highlighting details from photographs, focusing on relationships between elements in a concept map, or repeated viewing of an image to gather additional information. Written forms of information may include writing on the board, outlines projected onto screens, and handouts. In addition, a videotaped interview brings new people into the classroom. Effective uses of visual representations are those that are integrally tied to the curriculum and to assessment. (Return to top)
Don’t let students be anonymous
It can become very easy for students in large classes to fade into the background. When students feel anonymous, the atmosphere of the class will inevitably be affected in a negative way. It is important to establish upfront that you are going to hold students accountable for not only attending class but also contributing to it. Don’t think of this as policing student behavior (although it has that function) but rather as a way to establish identities and help students to learn about, and from, you and each other over the course of the semester. Here are some useful practices to consider:
Establish and enforce a clear attendance policy
If all class members are equally responsible for the success of each session, everyone needs to be present. The University gives instructors considerable latitude in this matter, so long as the policy is clear and in writing at the beginning of a course. We strongly suggest that this policy be outlined in your syllabus, and discussed with your students on the first day of class. Additionally, make it a class policy that attendance can and will be taken at any time: the beginning of class, after any breaks, in the last 10 minutes, etc. (Return to top)
All students should come to class prepared to answer questions about readings, to read from writings, to participate in class activities, and so on. Demonstrating preparedness may contribute to student grades in a variety of ways, such as short quizzes on readings and participation in class activities. (Return to top)
Abandon (absolute) uniformity
This is a corollary for “expect preparedness” that states: “If we expect all students to come to class prepared, we can call upon them in class to do different kinds of work on different days.” For example, if you assign everyone to read an essay, write a response to be read to the class, or advise them to be prepared to participate in a panel discussion, then you are not obliged to make all 140 students (say) take part in that particular panel. Rather, you can fairly ask any six (for example) students. (Return to top)
Create a variety of opportunities for speaking
As noted above, most people associate responsibility and active learning with speaking — and with good reason: we need, as the axiom has it, to “put things in our own words.” Thus, although so many things about our lecture centers tend to discourage distributed speaking (one microphone, one lectern, fixed rows of seats, etc.), it is worthwhile to create occasions for students to do some of the talking. Here are some ways you can do this.
Make frequent use of in-class writing
The writing-intensive literature over the past decade has suggested quite a few ways to use writing as a mode of learning. For large classes, frequent short writings — to be read aloud, or shared with a partner — can help keep students actively engaged. These may be graded or ungraded activities.
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