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What makes your best big class?

Keeping on our teaching theme, this is one for the Teaching Fellows and TAs out there, and those aspiring to teach.

At the beginning of a course I do a “best & worst classes” exercise where the students have the opportunity to comb through their memory and reflect on what things their classmates and instructor did to make their best classes so good and their worst classes so bad. This semester I’ve got two big lectures. They’re the biggest classes I’ve ever taught. And I wondered, as I prepared my first sessions, “is what makes a good big class different than what makes a good medium or small class?” One of the many reasons I care about the mood and the interpersonal dynamics of the room is that the kind of rapport that I form with my students and that they form with each other is one of the biggest factors in getting us through challenging activities. Since I like to keep pace with the leading edge of the scholarship on teaching and learning, I rely only lightly on conventional assignments like tests or essays. To venture outside of those conventions, as I have seen time and time again with my students, takes some trust. So my TAs and I drew a chart on the blackboard (below) and I asked my students to fill it out with specific reference to their experiences in big classes. image2 IMG_2361IMG_2360image1-2

 

A few of these might want a little explaining – we wound up hearing stories about some hilarious idiosyncrasies, including students who obsessively folded origami during class, or habitually flipped their long hair such that it covered the computer screen of the student behind them, and a professor who read the same several pages of a book verbatim three consecutive times over (that one was signified by the “???”). But these quirky things mostly grouped together under the category of “distracting behaviours,” and the positive things, well, they showed that the things students liked best about big classes were the ways that they resembled small classes.

(I should note that the point about getting “what you pay for” was a cheeky way someone put the point that we reap great value when we truly commit our energies to the things to which we’ve committed formally on paper, and it didn’t pass by without my critique of the commodification of learning).

The things students liked best about big classes were all about emotion (humour; passion; comfort; giving the benefit of the doubt [summed up as the principle of “charity”]) and personalization (flexibility; knowing your students). Certainly, they didn’t differ in any striking ways from the lists generated by my small classes, and I would argue that they’re things much more easily done in small classes.

So how am I trying to make my big classes like small ones – without the benefit of tutorials? I’ve grouped students together in working groups who will stay together throughout three assignments over the course of the semester. Before ever working together, they were given time in class to meet each other (a major challenge given the physical constraints of our classrooms – long rows of immovable desks that you have to shimmy in and out of). And outside of this group work (governed by contracts of their own making) there are other opportunities to interact with each other in structured ways and at different scales. Each class has taken a field trip in three sections, each consisting of several of these small groups. In our online course site there are thriving discussion boards where little communities of interest form around topics students initiate or respond to for their “weekly comment assignment.” And of course there’s the possibility of some think/pair/share, back-and-forth Q&A, and discussion activities in lecture.

Intriguingly, the class cultures are nonetheless very different, although the structure is the same for both. I imagine this has a lot to do with the different topics and who those topics draw into the room. I’m curious to see whether they converge or diverge by the end of the semester. And I’m also curious:

What makes your best big class? And what do you think are the merits of a big class that aren’t shared by a small one? Have you ever taken elements from, say, a scintillating public talk, which by definition can’t be interactive, and applied them to teaching a big class? Share your thoughts below.

 

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