Engaging Large Classes: Notes from a Workshop

These are my notes from a recent Teaching + Learning Workshop on engaging large classes, with Patrick Finn (R, Drama) and David Dick (L, Philosophy).

I’m posting these notes here because far too often, events of this kind aren’t documented for those who had the misfortune to miss them.

This isn’t a transcript of everything that happened in the workshop; merely a cluster of impressions and ideas that David and Patrick raised today. (For the most part, I’m paraphrasing their words. My interjections are in italics.)

As you can tell from our appearances, the way for everyone to engage large classes is to be male, bald, and bespectacled.

The point is that you can’t expect to replicate exactly what we do. There’s no magic formula, no one technique or tool or platform that will work for everyone. We disagree about many things – for instance, whether or not to use Powerpoint slides. (Patrick’s use only pictures, by the way.)

Above all, just be yourself. If you’re soft-spoken, use a microphone. If you’re an extrovert, make dramatic gestures and range around the room. Set your room up the way you need it, and the way that makes you comfortable. Short of setting fire to the room, do what will make it the best environment for your teaching. If there’s a distracting clock behind you, cover it with a piece of paper. If the lights are too bright, turn them down.

Room selection is essential. If you need a better room to do your best teaching in, ask your department manager to approach the Registrar for it. (Give them plenty of advance time for your request.) And if you still don’t get the room you really need, contact Michael Ullyot, the Associate Dean (Teaching + Learning).

Remember that you are the expert in the room. Don’t obsess about delivering content, and controlling the flow of information. The fewer notes you have when you enter the room, the better it will go. Lecturing is more like jazz improvisation than playing a one-person band: you need to hit a few notes to keep the tune familiar, but you are free to range around a bit. David’s rule is to go in with 7 or 8 words on a yellow pad, and no more. We let go of rigid, detailed lesson plans. Your plans should be flexible, following student ideas as they arise, and being open to emergent questions.


So what if you’re obliged to cover certain topics and ideas, like statistics? (One of the audience members, Melissa Boyce, lamented that she has had to foreclose class discussions in order to cover necessary material.) You toggle back and forth between what you need to cover, and what the students want to discuss. Above all, be transparent with students: “I need to cover topic X for 10 minutes, and then we’ll get back to that question.”

Students are empathetic. They will be engaged if you are engaged; nervous or impatient if you are nervous or impatient. If you’re engaged and invested in the material and the methods and you love being there to talk about them, you’re going to engage the students.

Your class is a network. You’re all in that room together to build new knowledge together. Be transparent about what you’re doing: how you write down good ideas, how you read texts or maps or tables or whatever, why you assign the activities you assign. You’re not Oz the Great and Powerful: step out from behind the curtain. Walk students through the processes of working, researching, thinking, annotating.

If you worry too much about coverage, maybe you’re thinking too much about teaching material rather than teaching expert skills. If you model expertise, and talk openly with students about how you’re doing it, then you’re teaching what you’ll assess them on. And if you’re assessing more of their knowledge than their skills, make sure you’re striking that balance.

Asking the right questions will help foster class discussion. There’s a world of difference between briskly asking “any questions?” (i.e. “I really hope you don’t”) and asking “what questions do you have?” (i.e. “I expect you do”).

Prime the pump. Give students assignments that ask them to pose a question about the day’s material that shows me what you don’t understand about it. That way, every student arrives with a pre-formulated question that s/he wants answered.

What about learning students’ names? Try elaborate icebreakers: pair students together and tell them to introduce their partner to the class with one really surprising thing about them: something they’ve done, a story about themselves. That way, every single student in the room has spoken at least once. Then you make sure to use their names every single time you address them. It’s weird to be in a room full of strangers, so get to know your audience.

But (adds Patrick), some people just can’t remember students’ names. “I’ve studied or taken every memory system there is, but I cannot learn the names.” There’s no need to feel ashamed about it; better to come to terms with it, to tell the class and make a joke about it. It is not a deficiency to be unable to learn names — it just helps underline that you have to tailor your teaching methods to your abilities. There really isn’t one right way to do this that will work for everyone.

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