Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education
The large lecture course in undergraduate education has always been a foregone conclusion, with enrollments reaching as high as several hundred students. According to a study by Wulff, Byquist, and Abbott (1987), a majority of students surveyed indicated that class size does affect their ability to learn. They also reported on the impersonal nature of the course and lack of individual accountability, factors leading to decreased motivation. Additionally, Cooper and Robinson bemoan the fact that
the least engaging class sizes and the least involving pedagogy is foisted upon the students at the most pivotal time of their undergraduate careers: when they are beginning college (2000). (Excerpts taken from MacGregor et al., 2000)
So, what can faculty do to address these and various other issues that plague the “traditional” large lecture course? We can begin with the Seven Principles For Good Practice In Undergraduate Education (Chickering and Gamson) in order to improve undergraduate lecture courses. These important principles urge faculty to:
- encourage contact between students and faculty,
- develop reciprocity and cooperation among students,
- encourage active learning,
- give prompt feedback,
- emphasize time on task,
- communicate high expectations, and
- respect diverse talents and ways of learning.
How can we use these ideas in teaching large classes?
Make sure that students feel a part of your class. Spend some time as students are coming in to ask how they are and how they are doing in the class. End the class a few minutes early and be available for questions as students exit. Some students will be much more likely to ask questions to you when they don’t have to speak in front of the entire group.
One easy trick to help develop a relationship with your students is to use their names. Of course, this is easier said than done when your class includes 200 – 300 students. However, try having students make name placards they use in class so you can call on them by name. Or have them say their name when you call on them and try to use their name when you refer to what they said or if you call on them again. If you have a TA (or TAs), divide the class into smaller groups and make sure the TAs learn the names of the students in their group. Since it’s not feasible to “go around the room” to find out more about the students, have them fill out a “Student Profile” the first day of class. Questions could include: “What is your major / minor?”; “What do you see yourself doing in 10 years”?; What are some extracurricular activities you enjoy?” You might reference this information while meeting with a student, to put him or her more at ease and feel like an individual, as opposed to another face in a large class.
Another thing to try is to walk around during your class. Don’t just stand in front of the room, but circulate, even if it is just to help distribute handouts. Make a point to greet students when you see them outside of class (even if you don’t remember their name, or even which class they are in!). Make a point to answer student e-mails promptly. You might also think about setting up a class discussion board for questions about class procedures, how to do assignments, and so on. And, or course, you’ll have office hours. Remind students frequently when they are and encourage them to come during that time with questions, requests for help, or even just to chat. “Virtual office hours” are another means of reaching a larger group of students, particularly those who might have a physical disability or have a brief question that doesn’t require face-to-face interaction. Many course management systems (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT) offer chat session options.
Another strategy for making the students feel a part of class is to encourage connections between students. One way to do this is to have students sign up for a study group during the first class session. Set up groups in Blackboard for each study group so they can communicate with each other and set up times to meet outside of class.
It is also a good idea to have students introduce themselves to students sitting close to them on the first day. Five minutes to talk to someone they don’t know who is sitting close by are five minutes well spent.
Another way to encourage student-to-student interaction is to divide the class into small group of 4 to 6 students, after you have read Student Profiles (see above) that indicate academic and extracurricular interests, life goals etc. These can be semester-long teams that foster collaborative learning, a skill that students will need and put to use in future careers.
Put together a contact list for the class and post it in Blackboard. This makes it easy for students to get in touch, get notes for classes they’ve missed and so on. Finally, regularly build time into class to have students interact, which brings us to. . .
Admit it; you daydreamed during lectures when you were a student. You wrote letters to friends back home. Maybe you even fell asleep (and looked back later at those horrible notes that there was no way of reading). So, what can you do to engage students in learning when there are 200 or more of them in your own lecture class?
Post the objective for the day and an essential question. This will focus students’ attention. Then divide your lecture/demonstration time into 10-15 minute ‘chunks.’ At the end of these chunks of lecture or demonstration, have students work together to answer questions or solve a problem (See “teams” idea above).
Another idea is to give students some sort of graphic organizer (a chart or graph that summarizes the information you are presenting) to fill out during the lecture. Then have them compare their graphic organizer to a partner’s. One professor gives students copies of his PowerPoint presentation with key words and information missing. Students must fill in this information during the lecture thereby needing to listen and take notes actively. In this way, class content can be both organized and reinforced for the students.
Students can also discuss class readings in small groups and write questions for the instructor or discuss what they think the most important idea from class was at the end of the session.
A simple idea to get students actively involved while also giving you some feedback about how students are doing is to invest in small white boards (you can usually buy them in teacher stores or on-line teacher supply sites such as Lakeshore Learning) or have students bring ones they’ve bought to class (Keep in mind that this option’s feasibility will depend on classroom size - visibility is a consideration). Now you can ask students to vote on an issue or dilemma by writing their answer on the board and holding it up (have student volunteers help you count them). Or have students answer a question or solve a problem and hold up their answer. Now you can easily see if the majority seems to be ‘getting it’ or not.
You can also do the same thing electronically with a computerized polling system like TurningPoint. Some faculty at GW are already using this technology to increase student active learning and opportunities for immediate feedback.
Students need prompt feedback, in order to 1) feel that they’re not taking this class in vain; and 2) make adjustments in study methods, writing, problem-solving, etc.
Remember the interactive white board activity above? Don’t forget to walk around the room as students are writing their answers on white boards; comment on student discussions; go over content that seems problematic for students. Encourage students to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to stop what you are doing and re-teach something that students are finding difficult. Point out students who are doing well as models for others (remember to use their names, if possible), and tell students when they have answered a question well.
You might also want to think about the assignments you require and their due dates. If you don’t have a TA, it is particularly important to manage your workload so that you can get feedback to your students in a timely fashion. Perhaps you might want to have students sign up for papers on different topics due different weeks. Or correct homework in class by having students exchange papers and review the answers in class. You can also create assignments and tests that use multiple choice questions and post them in Blackboard. Then the computer will grade them for you! And speaking of Blackboard, it’s highly recommended that you take advantage of the Gradebook feature so students can check their grades whenever they want.
Make time in class for students to process information and apply knowledge. This is where group discussions and mini-presentations are useful for synthesizing, re-telling, and reinforcing content (see the active learning section, above).
This one is self-evident. Aim high and students will rise to meet the challenge. Make sure that expectations are clearly laid out in your syllabus and that you remind students often in class about what is expected of them.
Be confident in your students and tell them so. Students will be more engaged in your class if they know that you believe in them.
Not every student learns in the same way. Provide plenty of pictures, illustrations, and videos for visual learners. Visual learners also helped by opportunities for students to summarize information in charts. Kinesthetic learners learn best by moving. Try incorporating activities such as sorting cards, cutting and pasting, or acting out concepts. Interpersonal learners process knowledge best by discussing, sharing, or teaching it to someone else.
Be aware of learning needs of students with disabilities, whether physical or otherwise. Consult with Disability Support Services at GW for more information on how to provide equal learning opportunities for those with disabilities.
Above all, provide varied activities so that all students have opportunities to engage in learning that best fits their style.
Some final tips:
- Although you should plan what you want to say and have notes or a PowerPoint to keep you on track, don’t read from a script. Not only does it sound canned, but it does not allow you the flexibility to change your lecture based on questions from students about problems students may encounter.
- Have clear grading guidelines and rubrics to make sure grading is consistent, especially if you are employing TAs for that purpose.
- Use technology to help you when possible and pedagogically necessary. You can circle and highlight things on a PowerPoint presentation to make it more interactive, use video clips to illustrate things you have talked about and present student problems, etc.
- Consider making lecture notes and handouts available in Blackboard.
Remember that technology does not make for better teaching; rather, it should enhance it.
Additional teaching tips
- Large Classes: A teaching guide (University of Maryland)
- Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course (UC Berkeley)
- Beating the numbers game
Blight, Donald A. What’s the Use of Lectures? (2000). San Franciso: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Evensky, Jerry. (2005). The lecture. In Lane Tice, Stacy, et al. (Eds.), University Teaching: A Reference Guide for Graduate Students and Faculty (8-29). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
MacGregor, Jean, James L. Cooper, Karl A. Smith, and Pamela Robinson (Eds.); Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities. Jossey-Bass Inc.; No. 81, Spring 2000.