Fall 1994 - Volume 2 Number 1
Teaching Large Classes
At a conference on teaching and learning in higher education held at York University participants were invited to consider three major questions. The following is a compilation of their responses. Interestingly and perhaps predictably, a large number of the tips addressed the problems of student anonymity and passive learning.
Q. 1 What can an instructor do to improve student motivation, morale and self-discipline in large classes?
- Get to know students as early as possible in the year to reduce anonymity. Learn students' names. Have students introduce themselves in class. Greet students at the door with handouts. Talk to students after class.
- Encourage students to see you during office hours. Provide them with your office phone number.
- Practice creative listening in the classroom.
- One a week, in the last ten minutes of class, have students write three sentences in clear English, with each sentence describing a concept learned during that week's lectures. Concept sheets should be marked and should be worth 10% of the total mark of the course.
- Distribute a letter to your class at the beginning of the course, sharing a bit of yourself with them. Explain why you are there. Encourage students to also share a bit of themselves and their concerns.
- Ask for student input. Have the class elect class representatives or a student advisory committee, and meet with them regularly.
- Convey caring by commenting on papers.
- Be a model of discipline. Be on time, organized, knowledgeable and well-prepared. Always begin and end classes on time.
- Let students know it matters that they attend class. Take attendance. Use the first 15 minutes of class for the most important announcements (e.g., marking schemes, readings, etc.). This discourages student lateness.
- In a large class, be larger than life, exciting and dynamic. You need to be borderline manic, or at least not understated.
- Divide class time into two or three parts with breaks for questions, one-minute essays and evaluation of lectures.
- Enhance involvement by staging debates, eliciting opinions, asking questions and encouraging students to share their experiences.
- Make lectures relevant. Relate subject matter to the real life that exists outside of class.
- Be tolerant and treat students as adults. Many come from high school expecting a certain guidance which may or may not be provided. Many potential problems will sort themselves out without embarrassment to instructors or students.
Q. 2. What is your best tip for dealing with disruptive students?
- Stop and ask the disruptive student (who is usually chattering) to be quiet. Tell the student you've never had a class you've had to do this with (untrue, but hopefully embarrassing). Invite the student to leave.
- If you ask students to leave, speak to them later.
- Speak to the disruptive student after class. Share what you see and encourage the student to share his or her perspective. Try to use the disruption positively; validate it and use it for content.
- Never lose your temper.
- Treat a disruption as a question (“Sorry, is there a question at the back?”).
- If there is a problem, ask yourself what you did wrong before blaming the students.
- If students are aimlessly chattering, find out why. There is always a reason; deal with that reason.
- Stop the class and stare for a long and meaningful moment at the disrupter(s) without singling anyone out. This often causes students to discipline themselves.
- Use peer pressure; allow other students to provide solutions to the disruptions.
- Ask disruptive students why they are disruptive. If they claim to be bored, ask them to stay away from class.
Q. 3. What are your best general tips for teaching large classes?
- Use a variety of teaching methods, including overheads, blackboards, group methods, films.
- Don't shout. Use a volume which, in a quiet room, will reach easily to the back.
- Use humour and occasional jokes.
- If possible, move forward into the class, then back for writing on the blackboard.
- Repeat each student's question before answering it.
- Believe that you are teaching a group of individual humans, not a "large class." This is a central matter of perception, epistemology and valuation. Students know the difference.
- Package the lecture to make it worthwhile. People will come to listen if you consistently have something worthwhile to say.
- Take into account last year's course evaluations.
- Give students input into the material to be covered.
- Reward class attendance. Use a 60-second quiz two or three times per semester with a bonus of one point for attendance.
Eileen Herteis is Programme Coordinator at the Office of Instructional Development at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.