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Teaching the Masses: Making Meaningful Pedagogy in Large Lecture Classes

panel discussion on large lecture classes
March 17, 2016

The first event sponsored by the new Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning focused on meaningful pedagogy in classes with 100 or more students (often referred to as "large lecture" classes). Structured as a panel discussion among four faculty members from across disciplines at UMD, the session focused on pedagogical strategies for engaging and making the most of large class size.

This event occurred on March 17, 2016.

The UMD Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is a direct outcome of faculty working for the last year across colleges and disciplines to determine our own needs and support structures for teaching and learning. Our new CETL is charged with the mission to provide leadership, programming, resources, scholarship, and support to foster meaningful student learning throughout the campus teaching community.  

Today, welcome to the first CETL event! You might be wondering why CETL’s first event focuses on large lecture pedagogy.  Well, the pressure to increase our enrollments may be especially strong at UMD at the moment, but literature in the scholarship of teaching and learning indicates that mass increases in class size have occurred steadily for decades and on an international scale.  With the rise of MOOCs (massively open online courses), the notion of reaching larger numbers of students has raised the stakes in higher education.  At the same time, many teachers have mixed impressions about large lecture classes.  Is it an opportunity to reach many young people with your field’s key questions, ideas, and social impacts? Or is it a constant struggle not to lose the high quality interaction and engagement characteristic of smaller courses?  How can we approach large lecture assignments as a pedagogical opportunity completely different from any other classroom structure?

Research on class size remains inconclusive. Why? Because we all have different approaches to teaching.  And it’s those approaches that are central to understanding and engaging with any kind of pedagogical environment. Hearing from disciplines other than our own is important because the techniques are transferrable. This is why we have organized our panel today with speakers from across disciplinary fields and colleges. 

Our speakers today are:

Robyn Roslak is an associate professor of Art History in the Department of Art & Design. Her teaching interests include the art of modern Europe and the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her research area is the history of late 19th century French art, the context in which she is currently working on a book about images of the laundress in 19th century French visual culture.

Brian Gute is an instructor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry where he regularly teaches general chemistry courses.  Brian has been very involved in active learning initiatives in his college, and has been an “early adopter” and creator of innovative teaching techniques for large lecture classes. He is currently engaged in a research project funded by the Center for Educational Innovation comparing a flipped classroom approach to a traditional lecture approach in General Chemistry II.  

Colleen Belk is an instructor in the Department of Biology where she teaches popular courses on Biology and Society and the Biology of Women, along with General Biology courses.  She has won many awards for her work as an advisor and teacher, and is a member of the UMD Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

David Syring is an associate professor of anthropology and regularly teaches the introductory course for the Anthropology major, along with upper level courses on Latin America, ethnobotany, and visual anthropology.  His research on women’s artisan collectives in highland Ecuador features prominently in both his teaching and writing.

Here is a summary of the panel's discussion around questions facilitated by Mitra Emad:

Tell us a little bit about the class. How large is it and why is it that large?

Brian Gute's General Chemistry II class ranges from 112 to over 300 students. It's intended for freshmen and he has taught it over ten times. Robyn Roslak's Art History class fulfills the Liberal Education requirement in the Humanities and is a required course for majors in her department. It has been as big as 250 students, but now ranges between 100-125. She's taught it over 30 times. Colleen Belk's Biology and Society class is oriented towards non-majors and also fulfills Liberal Education requirements. It's currently at 275 students and she also teaches a fully online section. David Syring has been teaching Cultural Anthropology for 10 years, also to non-majors and for the Liberal Education program. It runs between 150-200 students.

What pedagogical challenges did the size of the class create for your goals?

The biggest challenge the panel discussed for this question was how to engage students and make the classroom experience more active than the notion of "large lecture" generally implies. All panel members emphasized organization. Colleen spoke about the importance of classroom management and workload expectations, Brian talked about setting clear ground rules and mentioned challenges within the way large lecture classrooms are structured. Robyn discussed the importance of building community around sharing excitement for the topic. Robyn greets every student personally on the first day of class to set a tone for the semester.

How did you attend to/surmount/or otherwise engage those challenges?

Panelists engaged the challenges of large class size in large part by modeling the outcomes they wanted to see.  David talked bout dividing a class session into 15 minute chunks, changing up what is happening and what's expected so that students stay engaged and on task. He also pays attention to feedback and models excitement and interest particularly through sharing his own field research in anthropology. Colleen emphasized leaving the front of the room and teaching from other parts of the classroom, which "makes the instructor a human being trying to help them."  Robyn uses role play exercises and other "unplanned stuff" at least once an hour.  

What advice do you have for teachers facing a large lecture who have not taught one before?

 Colleen advised using email judiciously and prefers communicating with students through Moodle (the main learning management system used at UMD).  Brian emphasized delivering ground rules and expectations clearly, keeping the course website and syllabus well-organized and not one long page on Moodle to scroll through. David keeps the first four class sessions tightly scripted to "establish a clear vibe." Robyn emphasized that "knowing your content really well" allows you to pull from different possibilities and engage the students charismatically.

Discussion with participants included the following key points

  • reminding students why the course is a Liberal Education course
  • using a feedback mechanism at midterm and asking students what's working, what's not working
  • clarifying expectations at every juncture ("why are we doing this assignment?")
  • teaching from the back of the room
  • using technology in the classroom as something you have to talk with students about (myth of "digital native")

 

 

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