Big Can Be Better – Sheila Hannon

student facesStanding at the foot of one of the tiered classrooms on campus can be a daunting experience. As you look up – look waaay up, as the Friendly Giant used to say – you encounter a sea of faces. How can you keep these students interested, engaged, or – at the very least – listening for the next 50 minutes or so?
Few of us are born entertainers. Nor are we stand-up comedians. For the most part, we are conscientious educators who want to impart knowledge to our students. And while we would all love to have a class of 15 or 20 students, the reality is that class sizes at the university level are usually much larger. With the current economic climate, and the pressure on university resources, it’s a safe bet that class sizes won’t be decreasing in the foreseeable future. And it’s also a safe bet that at some point in our career, we may be asked to teach what we would consider a large class.
So, what’s the secret to teaching a room full of undergraduate students? Grab their attention, hold it with a variety of activities and interactions, and send them home with a clear understanding of the day’s topic . “Whoa ….” you say. “What was that about activities and interactions?” The idea of a large classroom full of students and group work seem to mix about as well as oil and water. And it’s not only teachers who have that notion.
When I mentioned using group work in a large class to a worldly-wise student who has just completed her first year of university, the response was also negative. “You can’t do group work with a large class of students!” she bluntly informed me.
“Well, yes you can,” I just as bluntly informed my favourite ( and only) daughter.
We are sometimes constrained by our preconceived ideas and past experiences. Lecture halls are for lecturing. Right? Well, they don’t have to be.
At the risk of oversimplification, we need to remember that sound pedagogical principles apply whether the class is small or large. Engaged students are learning students. We regularly refer to the Learning Pyramid – 5% retention when we hear something; 50 % or more when we discuss, practise, or teach others. So, don’t be afraid to try something different. If you’re looking for ideas, check out the Teaching Tips on the CTE website:
Or, if you’re feeling even more adventuresome, try one of these 36 activities: Incorporating student activities, discussions, one-minute papers, debates, game show quizzes, and even – GROUP WORK – may be a little risky. It may not work the first time. And it will certainly require more preparation on the part of you, the instructor. But in the end, it will be worth it.
When you look up —- waaay up —- that sea of faces will be eager, expectant, and engaged. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Sheila Hannon

As a Teaching Assistant Developer, Sheila Hannon is responsible for observing teaching events, facilitating workshops and providing feedback for participants in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program. Sheila is excited to have the opportunity to meet and work with grad students from all faculties at UW. A former newspaper reporter, she is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature where her research interests include new media, journalism, and Canadian Literature. She has taught as a sessional instructor and a teaching assistant, both on campus and for Distance Education since 2002.

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