Sunday, September 23, 2012

Student Engagement in a Large Class Setting

The aim of flipping a class--taking content delivery out of the classroom and devoting class time to application of content--is to foster a student-centered, active learning environment.  Even the most charismatic lecturers will struggle to keep a class of 400 on their toes, actively thinking and engaging with the content of the lecture, for 50 or 75 minutes.  Oftentimes, from our perspective on the stage, it will look to us as if the students are eagerly listening to our carefully crafted lecture, laughing at the jokes, answering the questions, and nodding in agreement.  A few of them are, in fact, staying engaged; but one consequence of observing my colleagues in their large classes (and having others observe me in mine) is that it is evident from the perspective of the student in the audience that our perceptions are just that...perceptions.  Students who look like they are taking notes are doing their math homework or buying clothes online or IMing with their friends.  Students who sit on the edges of the room or in the back rows, out of my sight line (many of our auditoriums are very poorly designed), are napping or reading the paper. Of course there are always those devoted students who populate the first few rows who really are engaged. The challenge, though, is getting the rest of them engaged in a meaningful way (and I'd argue that simply tossing a few questions to the audience or having them talk in groups about something isn't necessarily meaningful engagement).

The central goal of every class I am teaching this semester is engaging every student in the room at all times and as much as possible.  As the instructor, my focus is completely on class.  Yet, I know that it is easy for student attention to wander when they aren't "on the hot seat" (mine certainly does when I am in workshops or lectures that require me to sit still and listen to a presentation for 45 minutes).  In my other class, an 8 student course for graduate students during which we read large amounts of Latin prose and work on improving their skills and speed, there are some relatively easy ways to do this.  In the Rome class, with 388 students, it's a major challenge.  I>clickers are a tremendous help, both in engaging students at a particular moment and in keeping them ready to be engaged.  They never know when another question will be put up.  I also use peer instruction at least once/class.  I am working on ways of blending i>clicker pools and peer instruction so that they play off of one another.

We also do "class" discussion, during which students will offer answers or thoughts on a topic.  There are myriad problems with this mode of discussion, however.  First, it is difficult to hear.  Sometimes I can't hear what they are saying and have to ask them to repeat it.  I then have to repeat the comment for everyone else to hear.  Often, that still isn't sufficient for kids in the back of the room.  They can watch the recording after class to find what they missed but it is difficult for them to stay engaged during class itself.  As well, the layout of the room makes it very difficult for me to see people on the sides of the room who are raising their hands.  The stage is very shallow and a large swath of the room is completely outside of my peripheral vision.  Moving off of the stage and around the room helps a bit but then I have my back to some section of students.  Finally, "class discussion" is more of a 1-1 form of conversation.  It works well (or at least better) in small, seminar-based classes.  It is less than ideal in a very large class and I will be avoiding it as much as I can.  It is too easy for the majority of the class to tune out, even if briefly.

I will be experimenting with some other ways of keeping everyone involved, such as using colored cards that they raise.  In future semesters, I might allow them to tweet questions or responses.  Figuring out how to keep everyone involved is the biggest challenge of teaching a large class, but it is essential to the flipped design.  It will be the part of a course redesign that frustrates and stymies faculty like me who are accustomed to a lecture-based mode of teaching.  It requires us to completely re-think what we do in class; and requires us to discover and arm ourselves with an entirely new bag of tricks.  This is where support from a campus Center for Teaching and Learning will be crucial.  I have been the lucky recipient of great support from UT's CTL staff in the form of one-on-one consultations and workshops.  This fall I am participating in a Collaborative Consultation group on the flipped classroom.  A group of faculty meets with CTL staff members twice/month for 90 minutes to talk about our experiences with flipping our classes, tools we have found, etc.  I am expecting that this will be an invaluable resource, particularly for finding ways to keep every student as engaged as possible during class meetings.

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