Ask Professor Pedagogy: Tips for Engaging Lectures in Large Classes
Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.
Dear Professor P:
I’m TAing a large lecture class (about 150). Most of the time my fellow TAs and I grade and lead discussion groups, but in a couple of weeks, my professor is out of town and I will be giving one of the large group lectures. I haven’t lectured before and am really nervous. Also, I sometimes see students falling asleep or playing games on their computers when the professor lectures and I suspect they’re not always getting much out of the lectures. What can I do to keep the students awake and engaged in my lecture? They’ll be tested over the material and I want to make sure they understand it. I haven’t done much public speaking before and am getting anxious about this lecture.
Learning to Lecture
Dear Learning to Lecture:
You are not alone! A lot of people get nervous speaking in front of large groups of people. It’s great that you’re already trying to think of ways to encourage student learning in your lecture. The good news is there are many ways to alleviate those fears, to assess what students are learning during a lecture, and to take some pressure off yourself. Here are few things to keep in mind:
No matter how well intentioned, students often lose focus about 15-20 minutes into the lecture and again 10-15 minutes after that. When you plan your classes, add an activity that shifts attention. Use the 20 minute attention span as a rule of thumb: in a 50 minute lecture, use one change up in the middle; in a 75 minute lecture, use two. You can use a variety of techniques as this “change-up” to help up assess what the students understand, what needs more clarification, give the students a change to practice, or to help drive home a particular point. (The “Change-Up” in Lectures, by Joan Middendorf & Alan Kalish)
Be confident in your knowledge, but don’t make stuff up.
As the TA, you know more about this material than the students do. Be sure to make your content clear, but do not “dumb it down.” If a student asks a question you can’t answer, don’t panic. If you can, ask them to speculate on the answer given the material you’ve just presented (or other course material). This gives them a chance to think through the answer while applying course material. Even if they do not come up with an answer, they’re still practicing course material. You could also speculate in the same way, but make it clear that you’re speculating: “Well, given that we know X, and Y happens in this type of situation, I suspect that Z is the answer.” If you don’t feel comfortable speculating (and even if you do), be sure to admit that you do not know the answer and that you can look it up and get back to them. Students can almost always tell when you’re making up your answer and will appreciate your honesty. Also, by telling them that you’ll get back to them with an answer, you demonstrate your interest in the material and in their education.
You might also be interested in our upcoming events on Teaching Large Classes:
Reinforce student engagement.
Studies have shown that teachers who engage their students are both more comfortable in their role and more effective at communicating course content. This engagement, or lack thereof, can be seen in small positive and negative visual messages. Positive visual messages include: maintaining eye contact with class, scanning the class constantly, moving around the room, teaching to the back row, animating their presentation, using pauses and silence, using podium only as “home base,” and smiling. Negative visual messages include: indicating too much interest in the clock, reading notes, eye contact only with first row, gestures close to the body, hiding behind the podium, frowning or scowling. Additionally non-verbal communication is more reliable and believable than verbal communication (when at odds, non-verbal messages take precedence). (Arnold & Roach, “Teaching: A Nonverbal Communication Event”)
There a lot of ways you can engage your students in your lecture (see even more in the CFT’s guide to lecturing), but here are a few common ones:
- Minute Papers
At the end of a class or a section of material, ask your students to write for a minute or three. Questions such as “What was the most important point of today’s class?” or “What question do you still have about this material?” give you important feedback about the students’ comprehension and a useful starting point for the next class. (Schwartz as described in Wilson, 1986; see also Angelo & Cross, 1993)
- Think (or Write)—Pair—Share
Pose a question which requires analysis, evaluation, or synthesis. Each student thinks or writes on this question for one minute, then turns to the person next to him to compare ideas. Then the pairs share their ideas with some larger group (pairs of pairs, section of the class, or whole group). (Wright, 1994)
- What If?
A what-if? exercise asks students to move beyond what they know about a subject and apply a method or concept. This technique can be a good way to assess whether or not students understand a concept while allowing them to think through its implications. These can be realistic or fantastic. The intent is to generate speculation and analysis. For example: What if the Revolutionary War had failed? What if the polar ice caps melted? (Tauber & Mester, 1994)
Remember, have fun! I believe that your students want you to succeed. Be confident in your knowledge, and admit your limitations. Break up the class period and give the students time to reflect and respond to the material. This allows them to process the information and gives you time to breathe.