When I first started conducting lectures to large classes of a few hundred students, I constantly fretted about how to move the lecture session away from a monologue to a dialogue between the students and myself. I often wondered how I could keep the class intellectually engaged and maintain the students attention. I was particularly concerned with preventing the focus of certain class members from drifting away, and with addressing the problem of disengaged backbenchers (i.e. the students occupying the back rows in the lecture theatre who chattered incessantly and seemed totally indifferent towards the lecture). Over the years, I have tried a number of classroom strategies which have helped me transform my lectures into much more interactive sessions. I would like to share these strategies with you, and hope you will find some of these ideas useful.
For the lecture to be conducted effectively as an interactive session, I always find it useful to share my expectations with the students. A good time to do this is during the first lecture of the semester (although I find it a good idea to remind the students of my expectations every few weeks). So, what are some of these expectations? First, I remind the students that their learning is not solely my responsibility, and that they are to share that responsibility. Next, I emphasise the importance of listening, thinking and responding in an interactive lecture session. In addition, I stress that the lecture only highlights key ideas and concepts; therefore, students need to read further on their own.
Besides sharing my expectations with the students, I also attempt to raise their level of motivation. For instance, I try to arouse their interest by indicating the relevance of the lecture to their personal (e.g. self-developmental or career) goals. I provide specific motivational cues (e.g. I tell the students that the material to be covered in the lecture is important and that it will be included in the mid-term or final examination). I make the objectives of the lecture explicit at the start of the lecture session.
Once I have addressed the issues of my expectations and students motivation, I move on to specific strategies of fostering interaction during the lecture. One set of strategies focuses on personalising the large class (which can be challenging if one is looking at a class size of a few hundred individuals). Some helpful methods are as follows:
- arriving at the lecture theatre five to ten minutes before the scheduled time, and chatting informally with students before the lecture;
- personally distributing the lecture handouts to students;
- moving around during the lecture;
- learning the names of as many students as possible;
- moving closer to a particular student when he/she speaks up;
- inviting students feedback at the end of the lecture (e.g. students are asked to submit a one-minute paper; i.e. they take a minute to jot down their feedback or questions on pieces of paper, and then submit them to me);
- staying back after the lecture to talk to students and to answer their questions.
A second set of strategies involves the use of stories during the lecture, such as personal anecdotes (e.g. childhood experiences, family stories, work experiences, vacation stories), headline news, and interesting stories about celebrated scholars within the discipline. I have discovered that stories can make lecture concepts vivid and clear by illustrating them. The stories enliven the lecture materials for the students, and therefore help them feel more personally connected to the subject matter.
A third set of strategies encourages students to ask questions during the lecture. I have found the following methods effective:
- telling the students that their questions are always appropriate;
- reminding the students that I welcome their questions;
- responding to students questions as thoroughly as possible (to show that I appreciate their inquiries);
- requesting the names of the students asking the questions (to show that I value their participation);
- using the one-minute paper to help shy students ask questions;
- moving closer to a particular student when he/she is asking a question;
- showing respect for the students, and not putting them down (even if the questions they raise appear dumb to me).
Another set of strategies involves encouraging students to respond to questions, such as allowing enough time for students to frame their answers to the questions raised, and handling wrong answers tactfully (i.e. not putting the students down and embarrassing them). I also often avoid exchanges with only one student; in fact, I always find it worthwhile co-opting the backbenchers by drawing them into the question-and-answer loop.
Other strategies that have helped me to encourage active student learning in large classes include implementing:
- a participatory lecture format:
- inviting students to shout out everything they know (or think they know) about an issue or topic;
- the think-pair-share strategy:
- asking students a question or posing them a problem;
- getting students individually to think about the answer/solution; and
- getting students to pair up to share their answers/solutions, thereby creating a more superior collective answer/solution;
- games during the lecture:
- inviting a few students to take part in a question-and-answer game; and
- getting other students to participate by calling out suggestions, clapping (when right answers to given), or even groaning (when wrong answers are given).
Finally, I have learnt from experience that the attention span of my student audience rarely stretches beyond fifteen minutes. Consequently, I always break the lecture session up into fifteen-minute segments and I slot in a participatory activity (e.g. think-pair-share, game, question-and-answer session, and one-minute paper) after each segment.
Carbone, Elisa. (1998). Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Johnson, David W.; Johnson, Roger T.; & Smith, Karl A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. Washington, DC: ASHE/ERIC Higher Education.