Teaching in large classrooms to 50, 75, even hundreds of students is becoming more and more common. This raises several questions about pedagogy and facilitation; perhaps the most urgent issue involves student engagement - how do I keep so many students engaged in the course and the material all at the same time?

One strategy is to include active learning in your facilitation of large classes. The following are some examples:

* Create small groups that will each work on a specific question or exercise in class. Select one group to present their conclusions to the class; give the class time to respond, challenge or debate the issue.

* Invite student groups to present on the assigned reading at the beginning of class (assign this well in advance). Invite other groups to respond, challenge or discuss issues raised in the presentation.

* Have students do a one-minute writing at the end of class. Ask, "What was the most important thing you learned in class today?" and "What issues from today's class is most confusing to you?" Collect all or some (at random) and use those to inform your review at the next class session.

* Have groups prepare a question on an index card based on the reading at the beginning of class. They should be of sufficient difficulty for the level of the class. Pick one group at random to ask the question aloud for the other groups to answer. Give more credit for better questions. Pick at random another group's question for the first group to answer. Collect and respond by the next class.

* Ask students in groups to develop one possible exam question based on the day’s readings. Each group is to read theirs out loud for other groups’ responses. Collect them all, give credit to good questions and put a number of them on exams.

* “Hot Seat” – select a student group to be in the hot seat. Anyone can ask them questions about the readings/assignments/other current coursework. They get points for every correct answer.

What other alternatives to lecturing can you devise that engage students in the course material?

Some material on this page sourced at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence: www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu

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Comment by Katie Bruffy on December 10, 2010 at 11:40

Enjoy your break too!

Comment by Edward Flagg on December 10, 2010 at 11:39
Katie - Brilliant, sounds like a good approach. Have a great break! - Ed
Comment by Katie Bruffy on December 10, 2010 at 9:52
Hi Ed-

Thanks for the feedback! It has been a month since my original posting and now the term is over and the marking is complete, leaving me in a grand state of reflection. I have thought a bit about my teaching persona and tend to think it works for me. However, it can always be developed, expanded, and negotiated. After reflection, I have realized that no classroom is going to be free of issues and rather than getting disappointed that the issues could not be prevented, I should gain excitement from handling the negative situations well, just as I gain enthusiasm when group discussions spiral into unexpected learning opportunities for the students.

Thanks again for the feedback and support. I will most certainly practice the phrase "Bob, I require a word with you after class" over summer break.

Comment by Edward Flagg on November 10, 2010 at 10:35

Hello! I feel for you, managing a class where that behaviour emerges can be frustrating, and challenge our ability to reflect-in-action - but I think we learn something every time it happens after the fact, as well.

You could say immediately and firmly, "Bob, I require a word with you after class," and then have a polite, gentle word about your expectations and how comments like his go against the standards of the community in the classroom. Doing that leads to other questions.

How do you establish your teaching persona in the classroom? Are you an informed ally, there to help them achieve the goals you have set for them? The content person, who focuses more on the discipline knowledge that the process of teaching? The stern lecturer, who establishes firm rules of classroom behaviour? Some of these? All of them? None of them? Your teaching persona will signal to students what they may or may not be able to get away with, you might consider who you present yourself to be in class.

What culture do you set up in your classroom? Do you discuss and decide on with your class at the beginning of the semester any community standards for language, behaviour, etc.?

I think I would spend time reflecting on the teacher I construct in the classroom and what that means to students; what value a community standards discussion might have to set expectations for behaviour; and ways I might attempt to immediately redirect the class's attention following this type of activity.

No one wants to be a baby-sitter. I feel for you. Good luck.

Comment by Katie Bruffy on November 4, 2010 at 8:56
I have tried several modified versions of these active learning techniques in my large classes, but tend to have a student or two (different every time) act as a comedian, providing irrelevant comments and discussion in response to the activity. Some of the class laughs and some of the class roles their eyes or provides a critical response back to the comedian. As the instructor I tend to lose momentum for the activity after the misbehavior occurs because I interpret the situation as a negative reflection of the activity (wrongly or rightly so). To combat the behavior I have tried several tactics, laughing, ignoring, letting the students challenge each other to hopefully settle on a common idea of what the classroom environment should be, and discussing the needed behaviors to create a positive classroom environment. I have not reprimanded people for their behavior because I don't want to be a "babysitter" and put people in time-out. Can someone offer some advice to help me implement active learning in a large class? Any guidance, camaraderie, or sympathy would be appreciated:)

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