Face to Face: Midsize Classes

Introduction

Computer classTeaching midsize classes often feels like the small class experience, but sometimes there is a lack of time to dedicate to each student that can become frustrating. Instructors may wish to develop new skill sets for handling larger groups and coordinating classroom management issues in the presence of several dozen participants.

Active Learning in Midsize Classes

Try to adapt as many of your instructional methods from small classes to the midsize room as well. Some common techniques include:

  • if lecturing, provide advance notes available to download that include significant blanks, so students have to listen intently and mentally engage the material
  • pose constant questions to the room rather than provide answers (note: you may find that only the same group of students are willing to speak up). The use of charts, diagrams, and photographs in your slide presentation may serve to prompt such questions, but the instructor should try to remember not to immediately launch into an explanation
  • create time for students to work individually on problems projected on the screen
  • ask students to draw a picture on scratch paper of your concept, using no words but still demonstrating comprehension
  • pause occasionally, leaving only silence in the room, for students to reflect on critical topics
  • use "one minute papers" to ask content questions, which can be collected and used as a micro-quiz (graded or otherwise) to gauge whether students really are understanding the material. Variations include asking them to list which topic was understood the least, to see if the entire class shared the same lack of comprehension.

For maximal student engagement, allow students to interact not only with the material, but with each other. Each of the previous suggestions can be followed up with a brief discussion with a partner, or in small groups. Some midsize classrooms make use of desk-chair combinations that can be re-arranged at will, which can encourage groupwork or even a circular formation for plenary discussions.

Since engagement will remain highest with variation, it is advisable to employ a shifting array of techniques. This list of interactive techniques can serve as a "toolbox" of ideas for use in making your class an active experience for your students. Many of the ideas on the list also offer suggestions for the kinds of activities students can perform in pairs and groups.

Student Response "Clickers"

Sometimes known as audience polling technology (or even just "clickers"), classroom response systems promise numerous benefits in classes, including improved student engagement, enhanced formative feedback for instructors, easy quizzing tools, even a means to take attendance. Instructors can employ the systems to gather individual responses from students or to gather anonymous feedback. Reports are typically exported to Excel for upload to the instructor's grade book. Our tutorial explains how to get started, and offers best practices for effective use of clickers: http://www.fctl.ucf.edu/TeachingAndLearningResources/Technology/CRS/

Classroom Management

Students in midsize classes usually recognize that they can be seen easily by the instructor, and yet it's not uncommon for a few students to be off-task, use cell phones for texting, browse the Internet, or even fall asleep. In many midsize classrooms, instructors challenge students who appear to be off-task. The preferred method to keep students engaged is to offer interesting, intellectually stimulating material, and to involve students as actively as possible in the session.

Community and Student Names

Like small classes, midsize classes retain a feeling of community, and with some effort, instructors can learn all of the students' names. The personal connection with the students is advisable because it generates a feeling of accountability among students and it enables an emotional relationship to the material and to the instructor that is conducive to learning.

Tips for Effective Lecturing

  • Maximize clarity and organization: announce your daily objectives on the board and make transitions between segments of your lesson explicit.
  •  Do not attempt to “cover” all the material, but rather “uncover” what you can: what use is it to state out loud all the material if no one remembers it? Better to ensure students really learn a smaller chunk.
  • Create a supportive environment: memory formation occurs in the brain's limbic system, suggesting a strong link between emotion and learning.
  • Recognize different learning styles: students learn differently from each other, and our activities need to account for all these learners.
  • Teach for long-term memory: structure assignments, activities, and assessments so that short-term cramming would not help.
  • Integrate higher-level thinking skills into learning: target synthesis and evaluation skills, rather than just knowledge or even application, to guarantee a richer learning experience.
  • Use a variety of authentic assessments: measure student learning in a way that is true to the nature of the material. Is a test or essay really appropriate to this material?
  • Promote real-world application of the learning: student learning is multiplied when they perceive relevance to the material. Often it pays to start with a real-world problem and “work backward” to the concept/formula/etc underlying it.
  • Require students to become “active learners”: lecture halls invite student anonymity and passivity, two features which work against learning. Fight both with constant and varied activities, even if it means students working alone in their chairs.
  • Be an engaging speaker, especially if you only lecture: learning rests on engagement, which requires attention. All of this is only possible when students can be convinced to pay attention to you in class.

Speak Engagingly

  • Be conversational: don’t lecture AT them, just talk WITH them. Don’t simply READ your presentation. If you can approximate the feel of a one-on-one conversation, students will pay much closer attention. 
  • Use your voice effectively: you should vary the speed, the loudness, and the tone of your voice. These variations can be used to great effect to signify important material.
  • Achieve eye contact with ALL parts of the room: consider dividing the room up into quadrants and vary where you direct your gaze. If possible, wander the aisles.
  • Come across as enthusiastic and energetic: allow your passion for the subject and for teaching to shine through (don’t be dull or routine). Albert Mehrabian's study of effective presentations found these facets important in establishing believability: verbal considerations (words you say) accounted for  7% of the reason people are liked; vocal considerations (how you sound when you say them) was 38%, and visual considerations (how you look when you say them) was 55%.
  • Gauge audience reaction and adjust accordingly: bored audiences can be brought back with voice variation and suddenly energetic presentations (see above). But you have to watch your audience to know when it’s time to shift gears. Repeat points as necessary.
  • Use boards effectively: write down important material that you want students to write in their own notes. Write legibly (not cursive) and in large font. Do not speak when facing away from the class.
  • Create pictures verbally: both visual and auditory learners benefit from a mental image, which enables you to hold attention longer. Or use real pictures.
  • Tell stories: students react particularly well to teachers who rely upon their own character and history to illustrate examples from the subject matter. Once boring material now seems relevant and accessible to them.
  • Tailor your style to appeal to this specific audience: undergraduates often react more enthusiastically to word problems or examples that use mass culture and pop culture references. Also, pack in as many similes, metaphors, and analogies as you can.
  • Demand involvement from students in their seats; problem-solving or brainstorming can occur individually. If possible, build the PowerPoint presentation AROUND these problems rather than vice-versa.

Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Slide presentation software such as PowerPoint has become an ingrained part of many instructional settings, including midsize classes. PowerPoint can be a highly effective tool to aid learning, but if not used carefully, may instead disengage students and actually hinder learning. Our suggestions for effective PowerPoint presentations include best practices, delivery ideas, and sample presentations.

Discussion-Based Instruction

Unlike large classes, where lecturing is sometimes the only mode of instruction, midsize classes are small enough to permit significant discussion among students, or between the students and the instructor. Crafting interesting and compelling discussion questions becomes a major component of an instructor's job in such classes. In general, try to pose problems and question your students constantly: ask about facts, interpretations, processes, applications, critique, comparisons, and evaluations. You may find that controversy also works well to provoke discussion.

Writing in Midsize Classes

Assigned writing can be beneficial in midsize classes, and the assignment need not represent an undue grading burden on instructors. Consider requiring some low-stakes writing or informal writing that can be graded extremely quickly; this can be especially valuable if assigned often in the semester.

High stakes writing, such as essays or project reports, can also be assigned and graded easily even in midsize classes. Be very specific in the writing prompt about what is expected and how it will be graded, to keep student questions to a minimum. It may also help to offer examples and models. It is highly advisable to use a grading rubric to ensure fairness in the grades and to streamline the grading process dramatically, saving many hours of work for the instructor. This rubric should be shared with students in the essay prompt, as this will properly set expectations.

 

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