As academics, I think we can often feel like this image here of an overloaded truck. There are many competing demands on our time: research, teaching, administration, student experience and the all important NSS. Who doesn’t feel like this some days ?
Large class teaching can be one more pressure that we have to deal with. There are myriad challenges to address, such as managing student expectations, being available to students but also having a life outside work, and perhaps worst of all the relentlessness and never-ending nature of the marking.
In the early days, when I asked for help about how to deliver good teaching to very large classes, a distinguished elder scholar who shall remain nameless retorted “I just wouldn’t do them” – not that helpful to a newbie academic! My hope today is to offer tips that are a bit more useful than that, yet grounded in the reality that large classes are not going to go away and we as academics need to deal with them. (A copy of the presentation on which this blog post is based is available on Slideshare )
Large classes as an iceberg
I think large classes are similar in many ways to an iceberg. The bit above the water is what your students see – the performance, the content, the delivery style. But 90% of a typical iceberg lurks below the water. This is the challenge for us as academics and the potential for disaster in teaching large classes is very real and present. Some of the issues that we must wrestle with are logistical (for example, I have been frustrated continually over the years by the inability of the university sort out its timetabling) I have even delivered a finance lecture from the main stage of the Royal Northern College of Music as no campus room was available. How can you do small group work, if you are on your own with 200 students in a tiered lecture theatre ? What if your lecture relies on multi-media and the technology in the lecture room lets you down. Matters of logistics are indeed a sizable part of the iceberg – and when the class size gets above 250, the risk of potential embarrassment greater still. Other challenges centre on our knowledge of appropriate pedagogy, and how well we know our students (what are their educational and cultural backgrounds, how will they respond to highly interactive teaching sessions etc).
Given the issues that large class teaching presents, I want to share with you 6 tips that have served me well in my teaching and that I hope will help others starting out.
1. Understand the make up of your class
I often think of my classes in terms of two variables. One is the size of the class and the other is the familiarity of the students with the UK educational system. There is some risk of generalising here, but it does start to highlight the very different types of classes we are confronted within Higher Education today. I teach 4th year Undergraduate (small class, high familiarity with UK system), Post-graduate taught (very large class, upwards of 30 nationalities, 85% non-native English speaking and very low familiarity with the UK educational context) and on professional development programmes (to practising industry professionals). All are very different and my teaching is adapted accordingly. For example, I flip my lectures on the professional development programmes so that the students read all the course material online and the lectures are about active discussion and student presentations. My post-graduate taught teaching retains a traditional lecture format – all be it a more interactive one. Acknowledge the make up of your cohort and make this the starting point for your pedagogy.
2. Plan, plan and plan for success
A good lecture does not simply happen, nor does it emerge overnight or at the last minute. Not in my experience anyway. Begin early with the intended learning outcomes. Think carefully about what pedagogy you will use help the students achieve these. Are you sticking with a traditional lecture format, or will you look to flip it? How will you assess the students? Individual lecture plans are key to my teaching – partly as it helps me feel in control and thereby reduces the performance anxiety, partly as they help structure the learning and ensure that you stay on track.
My lectures which are often 3 hours in length and comprise a mixture of short power-point presentations, interspersed with learning activities or class discussions. Every 10 minutes I pause, ask a question or otherwise break up my delivery. During the lecture I move around the room – this keeps students alert to your presence and may keep them concentrating a bit better. The last 30 minutes is devoted to tutorial time so that individual students have the opportunity to ask me questions or clarify points of understanding. I also expect my students to do pre-reading of selected case studies before the class, which are used as the basis for in-class discussions.
Importantly, I reflect at the end of every class on what has gone well and what has not gone so well and I make a note of this on the individual lecture plans, then when I come to prepare the material for the next time around I can make the required changes easily – either by adding/removing material, adding additional tutorial questions or video/audio explanations or rewriting explanations.
3. Don’t aim for perfection
Get your material, unit design and assessment 80% there. You will spend a lot of time trying to perfect it to not much gain. Don’t try to get everything in place in year 1 – build materials incrementally – add rich media, video tutorials year by year. An important mantra that I hold onto is “Less is often more”. Don’t try to cover everything in your lectures – get your key learning points across and use lots and lots of worked examples to help students grasp the concepts. There is a temptation especially in the early days to jam lots and lots into your lectures in case you run out of material, but I think it is better to finish a little early and allow time for students to approach you after the lecture if necessary. Lastly, innovate cautiously. I am an innovator and am generally not afraid to try new things, but with very large classes any problems are exacerbated due to the sheer size of the cohort so be cautious about radical innovation and test technology well in advance before relying on it in the live lecture or assessment.
4. Learning technology is a tool – it is not your master
However good and ubiquitous learning technology gets – it remains a tool; an enabler and not our master. Select the technology that suits and enhances your pedagogy. Start small and build up. I use rich media (narrated slides, video clips to explain core concepts, and provide model exam answers), I use the VLE discussion board and announcements as an important communication tool between me and students and electronic coursework submission and marking. But I use manual systems if they work better – for example a show of hands in class tells almost as much as an electronic voting system and is 100% reliable! For those interested in more tips on using technology in large class teaching I refer you to an earlier blog post Blended Learning
5. Don’t be seduced by the latest educational buzzword
Lecture flipping, BYOD, MOOCs, Students as partners. We are constantly assailed by new educational buzzwords. Without getting into a bit of a rant here, my strongest advice is always to think about these buzzwords/trends in the light of your own classes, your own pedagogy and your own teaching preferences. It may be that the flipped model is not appropriate for a very large class of international students, arriving in Manchester and being exposed to my lectures as their first experience of the UK. Instead we move gradually, acclimatising them to interactive lectures and in-class discussions in semester 1, allowing other colleagues to move towards a flipped model in semester 2.
6. Get the assessment right
I saved the hardest challenge to last. Getting assessment right in large classes is very problematic in my experience. I have tried group posters with 300 plus students, group based wikis with 250 students, traditional individual essays of varying length, VLE based multiple choice quizzes, case study analysis, multiple choice examinations, all essay exams. You name it, I have tried it and whilst there are pros and cons of each of the above approaches, none of them have enabled me to be confident that my assessments fulfill all three of the above criteria; namely that my assessments are meaningful, equitable and manageable. For example, an individual essay, if well set, should be meaningful in terms of meeting learning outcomes and developing independent thinking, and equitable in terms of rewarding individual effort but with a cohort of 250+taught by a single member of staff it is certainty not manageable ! In contrast a group-based wiki assessment makes marking more manageable; if well designed, it can definitely be meaningful but even with an element of peer assessment, can it truly be equitable to all students in the cohort? I wish I knew the answer to the assessment conundrum. Questions in my mind currently are around
So to conclude: I do my best with my large class teaching – but perfection will always elude me. On a good day, I like to think I glide around the lecture theatre and have the students rapt attention. On a bad day though, I get annoyed that some of my students show up late, or don’t contribute to lectures, or the audio in the lecture theatre is not working properly for my video clips. This frustrates the hell out of me but I keep going, striving to do the best for all my students.
Thanks for reading – does my experience resonate with you? Do you have other teaching large class tips to add to my list.