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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Much-Maligned Large Class Lecture: Strategies for Success

Institutions of higher education face many challenges—chief among them is the intense pressure to meet higher enrollment demands while weathering increased operational costs, reduced funding for state-owned colleges and universities, decreased gifts, and shrinking endowments. These realities express themselves in the classroom, with fewer course offerings or sections available and often larger class sizes. Common wisdom holds that more students registered for a course means a concomitant decrease in academic standards; in other words, higher enrollments necessitate teaching strategies, namely lecture, that produce less desirable learning outcomes. In a June op-ed piece for the Seattle Times, the President of the University of Washington, Mark A. Emmert, states this line of thought directly and publicly: "We now understand better that more active, engaged learning experiences are likely to result in more information being retained than from a passive lecture."[1]

As a professor now teaching one hundred plus students in classes once scheduled for twenty-five or thirty, I understand the challenges of re-making a course to accommodate higher enrollments while simultaneously maintaining academic quality and challenge. Effecting the transition from discussion and activity-based learning to a lecture orientation, I discovered a great deal about what works in my setting as well as what fails. While the value of active learning and a more problem-oriented approach to material certainly commends itself as a pedagogical strategy in my own experience as well as in educational literature, a well-conceived lecture with appropriate support strategies can also engage students and generate a positive learning environment. The easy equation too many educators and theorists make between large, lecture-format classes and passive learning need not hold if we approach the bigger sections with creativity, energy, and clear learning goals.

Let me begin with a brief description of my institution. A mid-sized comprehensive university in the North Carolina system, Appalachian State University enrolls approximately 14,600 predominantly traditional-aged college students. The Department of Philosophy and Religion offers a number of courses at the 1000 and 2000 levels that serve to introduce our majors and minors to these academic disciplines, but they primarily enroll students needing to complete general education requirements in the humanities. In this capacity, I regularly rotate teaching Religions of the World, Old Testament Literature, and New Testament Literature. Recently, I completed updating all three courses from our smaller classrooms to an auditorium setting.

The auditorium environment imposed several teaching strictures while also allowing for the retention of other tried-and-true practices. For example, the size of the room immediately took away the possibility of using a chalkboard and demanded projection of information onto a big screen either an overhead or with PowerPoint; I opted for PowerPoint and attempted to utilize it for three basic purposes. First, I spelled difficult terms and highlighted key concepts. Second, I included quotations of passages from various texts I wanted to work with in class. Finally, I incorporated visuals such as artwork and maps. Several results ensued, some anticipated and some not.

Students immediately begin to plead with me to post my PowerPoint presentations online in order to facilitate access and to allow them to run off the pages for the purpose of better note taking. My initial resistance to this request revolved around worries about releasing too much information on the class and thereby hurting attendance, but I gave in and posted them in the face of the continual desperation of student demands. As predicted by my gut feeling and confirmed in much of the literature, attendance immediately declined as students felt assured that their ability to access this information meant they knew the totality of what happened in class on a given day. I accept some responsibility for this turn of events. In spite of my intention to use PowerPoint solely as an aid to the material I presented, too often I provided more than simply a term or a map and gave students more of an annotated outline of the lecture material. However, fault also rested with the students. I quickly learned that they failed to grasp how to use PowerPoint. Instead of seeing it as merely a guideline to assist with difficult spelling, to access key texts, or to visualize a region, they began to believe that if they studied the slides, they would know the material in depth without any additional studying or reading; testing proved their assumptions false.

Curiously, in spite of poor test performance in the auditorium-sized classes, the access to PowerPoint received consistently high praise on all course evaluations. My students, much like me initially, failed to make the connection between possession of this prop and their inability to grasp the nuances of a concept or the ways in which discrete units of material fit together. The problem started to present itself clearly for me when I taught smaller summer school classes and used the same slides. With fewer students to track, I noted how PowerPoint gave them permission to listen selectively as opposed to actively and closed them off from any real participation with the material; in many of their minds, what happened during class came solely from me and appeared in this "written" archive. In terms of educational theory, I started to realize that I thought of my students as self-regulated learners. Simply put, "this learner knows how to learn, is self-motivated, knows his or her possibilities and limitations, and as a function of this knowledge, controls and regulates learning processes in order to adjust them to the task objectives and to the context, to optimize his or her performance and improve skills through practice." [2] My students, to the contrary, saw themselves as passive recipients in a transfer of information. How to manage this gap emerged as my real challenge.

One of the big questions for me became the purpose and function of class time. I always believed that class exists separate from the textbook; that is, the textbook provides necessary background and identifies core concepts, while class builds on that material by providing in- depth examination of ideas or texts and thinking through examples that highlight the relevance of the topic. This approach moves in a direction contrary to the practice of most of my students; testing and informal questioning reveal that students rarely read the textbook and rely on class to provide the course content necessary to pass. So I began more intentionally to structure relationships and academic experiences to meet my goals as an instructor and to transform my students into the kinds of learners I expected in my classroom.

If my desired outcome was that students be prepared in class to engage with material, I needed strategies to adapt my pedagogical style to the number of students in my classroom and to consider how to work within its unusual size and layout. Most instructors of large sections rely on some type of smaller discussion component or other contact with a teaching assistant to assure the personal touch so that students do not "get lost" in the crowd. My own setting lacks a program for graduate students and enforces strict limitations on the roles even advanced undergraduates can take in an instructional setting.

In short, no assistance exists for the professor to personalize the course or to build effective learning relationships with a large group of students. I do not require attendance in my large classes as there is no real way to take it. Few students take advantage of meeting me in office hours, and so I must rely on other methods to ensure regular interaction with students. Three strategies work for me in this area: my presence before and after class, moving around the classroom, and written feedback after every session. When I initially used electronic equipment, I came to class prior to starting time in order to assure its proper set up and functioning. A by-product of my early arrival in the lecture hall quickly proved valuable; once I completed the necessary work, I stayed in the room and chatted with students. Most days, the conversations remained casual—what happened over the weekend or upcoming plans, good movies or music, events on campus. On other occasions, students started arriving prior to class because they knew it afforded them the opportunity to ask about a concept, share an idea, or simply interact with me. After class always provided a rich opportunity for them to follow-up, but these minutes before class warmed them to me; I became more human with interests and experiences outside of class, and I got to know my students beyond what appeared on their papers.

The seating arrangement of our auditorium also challenged us in terms of any real communication; three sections divided by two aisles dominated the main floor and there is, unfortunately, a balcony. I forbid seating in the balcony—more as a voice-saver than anything else—and students comply with my request. However, a good number tend to congregate toward the back even with good seats available much closer. Prowling the aisles keeps the class alive and focused; students tend to pay attention and not fidget with other things when they know I might visit their section, and they also stay alert once they realize I will wake them, call attention to their activities, answer their phones or text messages—that is, once they know I see them and the anonymity of the crowd dissipates.

Finally, I started asking them to write down during each class one thought or question, along with their name, and leave it for me at the conclusion of our sessions. This strategy proved immensely helpful as it revealed general patterns where students connected with the material, what I did not relate clearly, and sometimes fun observations about my favorite basketball team (Duke) or one of my stories. I find it takes five to ten minutes to read one hundred responses, and I try to do it immediately after class. If the same question comes up from multiple quarters, I work on how to present that material at the start of the next session; if good insights appear, I share them with the group. Students also know that if they add their email address at the bottom, I will answer their question before the next class.

Although I know many professors who report success with WebCT, Blackboard, or other online course management tools for a similar purpose, my use of them proved uncomfortable. Course chat in particular, assigned and unassigned, never rose to the quality of discussion of material I wanted to see.

While establishing better student-teacher interaction, I also considered how to do more than simply convey foundational information; that is, how to generate more nuanced reflections on a subject. My class typically pulls together core themes with examples from current events, cultural experience, and fun anecdotes in order to elucidate a topic in ways that make sense to newcomers in a field. In smaller classes, I trusted the class process to produce unique connections and fun examples (although I saved particularly effective ones from year to year); a large class depends more on my planning, cuing the right illustrations, and knowing how to work each example for its greatest effect. Such preparation runs the risk of coming across as "canned," and so locating the places for spontaneity became a central task.

When making the transition from small classes to large ones, I worried most about losing the successful improvisational and conversational style of my teaching and instead becoming that more formal (read: "boring") lecturer. The ordered quality of PowerPoint fed my anxiety, but this fear proved, at least in part, unfounded. One article in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at what makes a successful large class; the writer studied several popular instructors, including Richard Halgin at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and concluded:

All big-class instructors emphasize the importance of preparation. In Mr. Halgin's class, there is no formal script, but there might as well be. He plans each 75-minute session almost to the minute, from opening remarks to closing comments. Yet the lecture does not feel canned. Mr. Halgin's delivery is casual and conversational, as if he were chatting with a friend. He does not, under any circumstances, wing it.[3]

In my first "big class" experience, after over 10 years of teaching, I found the numbers a bit daunting and took comfort in thorough preparation. Unlike my smaller classes where I came in with texts assigned but no structured presentation, I suddenly felt that I needed to know what material I planned to cover, how to approach it, and where I wanted to conclude. PowerPoint served as the necessary structuring device, but also felt confining in the sense that I found it difficult to vary from the plan when questions arose or when different connections came to mind. Over time, I grew more comfortable with shifting, but I still too often felt it necessary to flip through slides to get to the one I wanted and to cover the material I prepared.

So to recover and employ my spontaneity, I started to think about my own life as a student and what made large classes in college and seminary memorable for me. The ability of the teachers to engage my imagination and to make a subject relevant stood out alongside a mastery of the art of public speaking. In other words, I found that good lecturers opened up my thinking, introduced me to the world of their own inquiry, and encouraged me to explore the material in greater depth. No wonder I favored self-regulated learning—it worked for me.

In his article "The Well-Tempered Lecturer," Jay Parini writes: "Every genuinely good lecture is the product of a lifetime's commitment to a body of knowledge, representing a way of being in the world as much as mastery of a subject." He goes on to report on a conversation with Sir Isaiah Berlin in which Berlin says, "My lectures are just extensions of my reading, part of my argument with authors of certain books that I care about. . . . I have no method. Like every student in the class, I'm fumbling for the light switch in a very large but very dark room. The students get to watch me fumble." [4] Students expect a lecturer to exhibit a degree of command over the material, not in the sense of a perfect recitation of facts and an ability to answer any question, but rather as someone in an intimate relationship with the subject—possessing the accumulated wisdom of many years of study and yet continuing to learn subtleties as time progresses. What makes Berlin's insights compelling is the simple recognition that students identify with the lecturer as a learner; that is, a teacher illustrates openness to the topic and how to search for new points of access by effectively locating him or herself in the student's position and thereby forging a camaraderie. This quest mirrors their own and illustrates the process of how one approaches a discipline and produces knowledge; the professor teaches by embodying learning.Contrary to the common assumption that students in large classes want only to be entertained, what actually works rests more in this modeling a process. Marshall Spector makes the point in a piece on teaching, where he argues data transmission via good performance alone ultimately fails:

Sometimes getting the material across is not enough. I have come to understand and appreciate another goal in teaching, for which inspired presentation is not appropriate. The other goal is ensuring that the students are at least as interested in pursuing the material of the course when it is over as they were when it began. Have they been hooked?

Excellence in conveying a subject demands more than simply transmitting information to willing (or, often unwilling) recipients; what Spector correctly identifies as a goal comes in engaging the students to enter into the struggle of learning and to do more than memorize and reproduce a body of facts. The compelling lecturer, indeed the good teacher, creates enthusiasm for learning and invites students to make the material their own by offering them tools to engage with it. So, lastly, the question becomes how to achieve such a goal. Given that many students select religious studies courses due to interest and/or personal investment, the task of arousing enthusiasm usually proves less difficult; the true challenge comes in opening up the academic study of what the majority approach only through faith. I worried less about student commitment to the subject and, again, more about finding ways to assist them in becoming responsible for their own learning. The primary goal was to make certain that their vision of the task both during and outside of class time matched my expectations. The kind of "active lecture" in the Berlin/Spector model works only if both teacher and students participate in the process.

Getting students to come to class prepared became an initial goal. Several strategies worked with the bigger class. The oldest stand-by, in-class quizzing, serves well as a motivator, but it is also grading-intensive and thus not feasible on a regular basis. Technology helps here; on-line automatically graded quizzes require work before class with less pressure on the instructor. While students might not "master" material when they can use books and notes in doing such exercises, they at least glance over the assignments and ponder some of the key terms prior to time with me, and I can assume a minimal common level of knowledge.

Study guides for reading also assist in this process. A majority of my students cannot read critically or evaluate what they need to bring away with them after completing a reading assignment. Identifying key terms and posing questions for them to consider focuses their efforts and enables them to learn comprehension skills necessary for higher level work in any field. For example, when I introduce the concept of "Identity" in my Old Testament Literature class, I often assign Exodus 1:1-3:22 and ask students to mark all of the terms that identify the characters and peoples in the text. My next question directs them to categorize these terms into ones that serve to distinguish self and ones that characterize others. I frequently pair students up at the start of class for a quick discussion of an important or central question. So I might start the class on Exodus by asking them to discuss what it means when Moses says to God, "Who am I?" in Exod 3:11 and to consider what God wants to communicate by declaring in 3:14, "I am who I am." A large class prohibits, both in terms of the space available and the logistics, too much small group work, but these "check-ins" with classmates give them permission to explore their learning in a one-on-one environment and make the class feel more like a smaller one.

Finally, I commit myself to not doing the work for students. I pared down my PowerPoint presentations to the original three purposes outlined previously and turned them off when not in use. I focused class time on in-depth exploration of key concepts by using more of a problem-based approach and relying on my strength, a conversational style. As a result, students started looking less to me and generated their own understandings of texts. For instance, in a New Testament Literature class, I assigned the crucifixion account in each gospel and required students to email me in PowerPoint format one artistic rendering of the scene—artist name, date, and any titles included. I also asked the students to list the features unique to each gospel account and where they saw commonalities in the texts. Prior to class, I randomly selected ten slides and created a slide show (with a few back-ups in case of attendance issues). When we gathered, I flashed each slide and worked with the student who sent it in, examining how the artist's interpretation corresponds to or differs from a particular gospel; we considered issues such as conflation, other sources, and interpretive license as well. Not an art historian myself, I struggled with the students to assess details and make connections; as a biblical scholar, I made certain the focus always stayed on the text and I brought a more solid grasp of the variations in the telling, some ideas for why those differences exist, and ideas about the interpretive tradition. Test scores showed dramatic improvement, and the energy of the class came less from me and more from them.

In an ideal educational environment, we get to teach small groups of highly motivated students, and our classrooms make space for multiple perspectives and empower students to feel as if their learning relates directly to their interests and life situation. However, reality frequently dictates larger classes and less individual attention and participation. Such a situation need not mean a reversion to the banking model of education or a descent into passivity and boredom. Active learning strategies, modified for a large-class environment and combined with the thoughtful and reflective preparation of an instructor, can result in an exciting and innovative lecture class and positive learning outcomes. I know from my own experience that employing some of the methods outlined above can lead to more satisfaction with class for my students and for me.

Sandie Gravett, Appalachian State University,slgravett@hotmail.com

Notes:

1. Mark A. Emmert, "Active Learning Prepares Grads for a Changing World," Seattle Times, June 10, 2005.

2. Fermín Torrano Montalvo and María Carmen González Torres, "Self-Regulated Learning: Current and Future Directions," Journal of Research in Educational Psychology 2:1 (2004): 22.

3. Thomas Bartlett, "Big, But Not Bad," Chronicle for Higher Education, 5/9/2003.

4. Jay Parini, "The Well-Tempered Lecturer," Chronicle for Higher Education, 1/16/04.n

Citation: Sandie Gravett, " The Much-Maligned Large Class Lecture: Strategies for Success," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=424

 
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