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