Large classes and student interaction – it can happen!

Post by Felicity Prentice

I am not sure what your view of CATs are – I’ve never seen the musical, but I own a 20 year old moggie who rules the house with an iron paw. But I digress, let me start with a confession.

I used to love large class teaching. I loved the sheer performance of it, strutting up and down, holding forth, having ultimate control over the PowerPoint presentation as it slowly and surely clicked its way through 50 slides of dubious quality. Appallingly teacher centric, I know, but so very safe and comfortable. I didn’t know if the students were following me, let alone travelling along side me. So what broke the spell?

Reality usually rears its ugly head at two points. First – your assessment of them:

“These students know nothing! I taught them, why didn’t they learn?”

And then, their assessment of you:

“The CES scores are low, but that is because they were a bad bunch of students, they never did the work I expected of them, and now they are taking it out on me”.

I am sure you have never been as vigorously delusional as I have. Perhaps I should take a look at the situation:

• In large classes students can feel anonymous and voiceless. The threat of exposing their ignorance is often sufficient to keep their heads down (and focussed on some serious texting). (Carnegie Mellon has some ideas for this)

• Teachers in large classes often feel compelled to focus on content delivery. As a solo performance, the emphasis is shifted to the ‘knowledge’ rather than the understanding, evaluation and synthesis (thankyou Bloom, Krathwohl and Anderson).

• First year students can be overwhelmed by the apparent lack of organisation of the lecture environment (who is telling them what to learn, how to learn and when to learn?). The volume of information can often drown out the key ideas and concepts you are trying to reveal.

• We need to offer students an anonymous voice, a chance to tell us; what is muddy, unclear, an unanswered question, or even a quick view of what they believe are the most important things they have learned. We can learn from this, adjust our approach, respond to their feedback – before it is too late.

So, let’s try CATs, or Classroom Assessment Tasks (thanks Angelo and Cross). These are simple, quick, non-graded, anonymous tasks carried out in class, lasting about 2 to 3 minutes. Students are asked to pause, reflect and write down their response to an enquiry about their learning. This can be a response to a variety of prompts, such as:

• What is the most important thing you have learned today?
• What is the muddiest point (the idea that is least clear to you)?
• Write a short 3 sentence summary of [key concept].
• Write a 5 mark exam question based on today’s work.
• Identify the three most important concepts from today’s lecture.
• What information from last week have you used today?
• How could this class be improved?

The pause gives students a chance to switch from listening to thinking, reflecting and responding. The notes (and it is easy to hand out index cards) get passed to the front, and you can scan through them at your leisure to get a snapshot of what is happening in that amorphous body of eager students. Most importantly, at the next opportunity, you respond to the students:

“I had a look at your responses, and I think we might need to review [concept].”
“It was great to find out that you are understanding [concept], but I also hear that you need more time to get a grasp of [concept].

The students have a voice, you have some insight, a feedback loop has been established. You don’t need to do a CAT every time, just dip in and out, let the students know you care about listening to them (as much as I care about listening to my own voice).

And, if you are feeling really bold – try it with Personal Response Systems (“Clickers”). Put up some multiple choice questions, find out what they know and don’t know. Be even bolder, ask them to tell you how the classes are going, what you can do to improve. And if you use the feedback from student survey questions you might have a chance to celebrate, and/or address, issues before the end is nigh.

Want to know more?
Five Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handy Handbook
An Introduction to Classroom Assessment Techniques by Diane M. Enerson, Kathryn M. Plank, and R. Neill Johnson
Using Classroom Assessment to Change Both Teaching and Learning by Mimi Steadman

4 responses to “Large classes and student interaction – it can happen!

  1. Karen Cullen 21 July, 2011 at 03:17

    I really enjoyed reading this post Felicity, I had not heard of this type of exercise, but definitely something I can imagine would have worked well with some of my sleepier/bored/uninterested? large lecture classes.

    I was part of a group of lecturers who tried a fun experiment with a large first year lecture class. The course was team taught so the students were used to a variety of experiences from the strutting lecturer to another who read verbatim from a handout that he provided to the students!!! One year we decided to trial a debate. Four lecturers took part and each was allotted time to put forward their particular argument or viewpoint about a particular topic. Once this was over the lecturers then took apart each other’s arguments, argued, debated and invited the students to join in. They did!! There was applause, laughter, comments and questions from throughout the lecture theatre – we ran out of time we were all so wrapped up in this.

    The lecturers and students were all so fired up by this that we arranged a second debate later in the semester – Attendance was up markedly for this second event and participation was even higher.

    The student feedback both informally and through the end of semester questionnaire was very positive. The students asked for more of this type of event. They also told us that hearing their lecturers provide differing opinions and arguing made them feel more secure in offering their own thoughts – there was no one correct answer. This was a point that we had been trying to get them understand from day 1 – the subject was history, debate is a key element of the discipline – but actually witnessing a real, live historian argy-bargy apparently was the best way to both convince them of this fact and that their own ideas and participation as historians were as relevant!!

    I felt that this exercise was also moving beyond mere listening, to thinking, analysing weighing up opinions. I wondered at the time, though, to what extent the following lecture class was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps integrating a CAT of the type Felicity described would have maintained a bit of participation momentum ?

    • Felicity 21 July, 2011 at 09:58

      The debate sounds really fantastic! It captures everything we hope to see in a large lecture – students engaged in a session where they reach beyond the lowest levels of (possibly) absorbing information to analysing, evaluating and challenging their conceptions. I have used this approach – but I have had the students in role plays conducing a mythical “Grand rounds” where they adopt different medical roles/positions and go hell for leather over a case study. We even watched some “ER” episodes to see the “Morbidity and Mortality Conferences”. (Actually we just watched and sighed as George Clooney did his thing).

  2. Angela Clarke 27 July, 2011 at 06:07

    Great stuff Felicity. Found the fantastic video on how to manage a large class discussion – worth a look.
    http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/video/managing-discussion.html

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