"Engaging Large Classes" contains a wealth of tips and strategies for the teacher facing a class where the typical enrollment is over 100. The book is divided into two sections. The first part, "Key Concepts," consists of 12 chapters focusing on general pedagogy. In the latter part, "Examples Across the Disciplines," 17 chapters deal with specific subject matter.
Readers seeking an integrated and comprehensive review of the literature with applications will be somewhat disappointed. "Engaging Large Classes" is a group of nearly 30 chapters by different authors where each chapter can be read in its own right. An advantage here is that the reader can be selective. For example, a science teacher at a small institution may skip over the chapters on managing teaching assistants, read a few of the general chapters, and turn to those in the latter half of the book focusing on science. But I strongly recommend reading the chapters outside of one's discipline since many of the ideas are applicable across diverse content areas.
Some chapter authors are excellent in their knowledge of the literature on educational research. These authors integrate pedagogical references with their experiences and observations in compelling ways. However, authors of other chapters speak from their subjective experiences without supporting assessment in the literature. Overall, the sound principles of teaching large classes keep surfacing from chapter to chapter. We learn from the perspectives of many passionate individuals committed to teaching large classes across many disciplines. The remaining part of this review will summarize some of these commonalities.
Most teachers are more comfortable and effective with smaller classes, although there are some that actually do better in larger settings. Unfortunately, inexperienced teachers are often assigned large classes. It is important that faculty receive professional development, support, and incentives for teaching large numbers of students.
The physical facility of the large class is crucial. One contributor pointed out that an environment with moveable chairs is essential for the successful teaching of 60 in a literature class. The physical layout also includes teaching equipment ranging from the traditional overhead projector to sophisticated multimedia and Internet access. The relative importance of these depends on the instructor and the subject matter.
All teachers of large classes must confront the two main obstacles of large numbers: student anonymity and student passivity. Virtually all the authors stress the importance of getting to know students by name. Some methods are taking photos (single or in groups), using index cards for information, learning a few names each class, interacting with students right before and after class, encouraging students to come by during office hours, asking students to introduce themselves when encounters occur on campus or in town, etc.
Authors point out that what one does in a large class is often very similar to what one does in a small class, but amplified. One must speak louder, make larger gestures, and pause more often to invite students to ask questions. One also needs to be more enthusiastic and passionate about the subject matter.
Teachers of large classes need to take time to explain the ground rules for proper conduct. They need to address behavior such as late arrivals, talking to neighbors, doing work for other classes, reading the paper, talking on cell phones, etc. It is best to have the rules and consequences spelled out in the syllabus. Teachers should also take great care to clearly articulate course goals and make sure the exams consistently reflect these goals.
The techniques employed to minimize student passivity and maximize active learning are also applicable in smaller class settings. The teacher should not stay in one place too long, especially hiding behind a podium or computer. Some successful teachers literally work the aisles engaging students with questions. One should plan to change pace from time to time with a demonstration, story, short media clip, slide presentation, or group activity.
Most importantly, one should plan activities where students are actively engaged. For example, one can pose a question to the class on a reading, case study, demonstration, idea, etc. and then have students discuss in small groups or with a neighbor (think-pair share). One can stage debates where students are required to take positions in groups, on panels, or by virtue of where they are sitting in class.
One social science teacher strongly recommends warning students in advance concerning controversial topics and taking time to explain the rules for civil discourse. Similarly, a physical science author warns his students when a traditionally difficult topic is about to be discussed.
No single student, class, or teacher is the same. Experimentation and feedback are encouraged. Many teachers use the one-minute quiz at the end of class asking for input. Perhaps the student is asked to write what was best about the class that day or which feature was most confusing. Ultimately, every teacher has to develop an individual style and to discover what works in any given class on any given day. Careful planning, while leaving room for improvisation, is essential. In summary, one cannot overly stress the importance of knowing the students, showing genuine concern for them, and exhibiting a passionate enthusiasm for the material to be learned.
Michael J. Ruiz