Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Meetings and More Meetings

This week is full. Today's morning meeting was mostly interesting, though there was no coffee, and I was working on short caffeine (my own fault for assuming there would be coffee).

But, at one point we were supposed to be discussing problems on campus, and one of the folks at the table said that a problem is that all students don't learn in the same ways, so faculty shouldn't lecture all the time.

Stupid me, I thought this was a meeting about identifying problems, so I said that I thought there was a structural issue here, and that it was really hard to teach a class with 85 students without lecturing.

And I think this is true. Our larger classes have "nailed down" seats. They may rotate a bit, but the motion is limited and they're set in rows with some sort of writing surface in front of them. Want to do group work? Someone is going to have to sit on the desks. You can do pairs, but it's hard to not have the same pairs.

And complicated group stuff, in a class of 85? How many times will you explain the instructions that everyone needs to have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil? At least six. When the directions get more complicated, it goes even more slowly.

Well, she turned on me, at which point I realized she's from the Heaps of Learning Intensity Group (HOLI-G) (okay, that's a psuedonym, but you get the point), and started talking about the HOLI seminars we should attend to teach us not to lecture all the time.

So what could I say? The last time I lectured in a class was in grad school, and it was either a 250 person survey of the middle of the English lit history thing, or a 200 person lower level Shakespeare class. In either case, I didn't have strategies to make a big class work well without lecturing (especially given the structures of lecture halls), nor the power to say that I wasn't actually going to do the lecture I had the opportunity to do to get a little lecture hall experience.

But day to day, I'm fortunate not to teach 85 or 200 or 400 person classes, and usually I teach in rooms without nailed-down chairs, so I can get students to move around, and I can use discussion, focused group work, and all sorts of other stuff to help students learn. (I've had students sit on the tables when necessary, too, but it's not comfortable and doesn't work really well over the long haul of a semester.)

But my fortune in class size comes at the expense of some other folks who do teach large lecture classes, because that's the reality of university life. My 35 person lit classes help support the 15 person writing intensive classes, but the cost efficiency on campus comes from large lecture halls full of students with one professor standing in front.

So what could I say? I didn't say anything else because I didn't think it would be productive.

But now I wonder what sorts of great strategies she's got in mind for teaching great classes of 85 or more students in nailed-down seating. And, alas, I'm not going to go ask her, because I don't actually like to be treated like I'm an incompetent for making a suggestion that I don't think was all that idiotic.

And yes, inside I was thinking about the fact that one of us has actually lectured to 200+ people, and one of us has done visiting lectures, and one of us plans out and teaches classes all bleeping semester that most students seem to have found pretty decent. And a few students find them more than decent.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to learn to be a better teacher. But I don't think someone who reacted as she did will really help me do that.

Oh teaching wisdom of the internets, what are the best strategies you've learned for teaching in large lecture halls with 85+ students?

(Yes, if I were a member of the HOLI-G, I'd talk about "promoting learning" rather than "teaching." I've become a curmudgeon, haven't I?)

But then, later, I had a less official meeting with Harriet, Columbia, Don, and Angel.

This is Don. He's a Golden Eagle. See the dark eye? Cool! Don got whacked by a car and failed the test to go live in the wild, so he lives at a center not too far by car.

He lives with Harriet, Columbia, and Angel, who are Bald Eagles, female, and thus (so the docents said) larger than Dan (because they're female and female eagles are bigger than males, though Golden and Bald eagles are pretty close to the same size; also Dan was from California, while the others were from more colder climates, which tends to correlate with larger size, too). Note the lighter, amber/yellow eyes? Way cool! The eagles spend part of the day in a viewing area, but because they all like the big window seat, they get moved around. So I'm not sure which bald eagle this picture shows.

The big windows look out over the Big River, so you can see why any eagle would want to sit there.

Meeting these four probably wasn't as productive work-wise, but it sure made me feel better about life.


  1. I don't have any large class strategies - I've only taught different levels of comp. Well, I TA'd for a couple lit. lectures, but I'm not counting those since I didn't do the lecturing.

    But, I just have to say that I've enjoyed many lecture courses throughout my education. I am one of those people who really do learn from lectures. I'm all for varied instruction when it is feasible and makes sense, but too often I hear a lot of disrespect for lectures when people are talking about teaching methods. I don't like it. When people in education say things like "students can't be expected to sit through a long lecture," I think that they might as well be saying that students can't be expected to read a book.

    btw, I wonder if that person has ever taught in one of those classrooms with nailed down desks and chairs?

  2. I'm not at all impressed with the 'active learning' and 'learning styles' folks... especially when the administration pays them to preach this stuff -- but then doesn't want to take the financial hit of breaking up large classes to make it possible.

  3. Anonymous5:37 AM

    I had a 200-person class last term and I found that there is lecturing and there is lecturing. Students seemed to really like it when I made good use of Powerpoint (to put up lengthy quotes I was discussing), included video clips of the plays we covered being performed and used lots of visual images. Surprisingly few complaints on the evals about the lack of interactivity (perhaps because they understood that we are limited in that way in a large classroom). Many also commented that they want a balance between the lecture and the Ppt slides - I posted the slides on Blackboard after and they found them helpful, but they liked that they had to come to class to fully understand the slides so that it didn't become the kind of class you could easily skip. Just a few thoughts on my experience. If anyone has great ideas on how to engage 200 people in fixed seating at 9 am, I'd love to know about them!

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  5. Anonymous5:55 AM

    I'm in the semi-anti-lecture camp, which is to say that I'm pro-small classes and, yes, active learning, which to me basically means making the students talk more than I do (on average, not every time), partly because I DO believe students can teach each other a lot (with guidance, duh).

    But I'd *way* rather sit through a good lecture than a bad discussion (where there is no guidance, where people drone on about their personal experiences when it's not relevant to class, that kind of thing). And size is a huge factor - when I have taught near 85 students? I lectured.

    (FWIW: I did designate some days as discussion days, and I did run those days as heavily moderated discussions - basically, me asking questions and them answering; not a lot of them talking to each other, but at least their voices as well as mine. It's possible with 70 students, which is the most I've had, though it's not ideal, and it doesn't always work - I find that a lot depends on the structure of the room. If we're relatively close together and I can walk around the room it helps, and the students have to be able to see/hear each other - there's nothing more deadly than trying to run discussion when no one in the room can hear what the student is saying. I suspect it wouldn't take too many more students to get unworkable - you really need to make sure students can hear and see each other, and that you can see all the students relatively easily, so you can kind of drag them into the conversation. I suspect once you start hitting 100+ you run into the problem of people not seeing/hearing each other, and checking out.)

    I have seen people talk about using more active techniques in big big lectures - think/pair/share, that kind of thing; a lot of it seems to entail building in pauses for students to think, evaluate what they've heard, and comment on it in some way. I've never managed to do that very successfully, though.

    In my ideal world, all classes would be small enough to have lots of discussion, and no one would lecture ALL the time, but certainly, there's nothing wrong with lecture as one component of a course. (And again, good lectures are way better than bad discussion.)

  6. K8, I liked lectures pretty well, too. But I recognize that academics are self-selected people who really liked the ways they learned stuff and wanted to learn more. I didn't self-select to become a long-distance runner.

    Inside, Yep, we have to recognize that there are limits to what can be done in specific physical spaces. And we have some not-great physical spaces.

    MSILF, I liked lectures fine, but learned more in discussion classes, and really prefer teaching discussion classes. But that's why we have some variety, eh?

    Fifi, Yes, a good lecture is wonderful! And bad ones, oh so bad. But despite going to a large public university in the dark ages, AND studying mostly science, I found most of the lectures pretty cool and interesting. But then, I self-selected to become an academic.

    New Kid, I totally agree with you on the good lecture vs bad discussion issue. It's amazing that you could do a discussion with large classes. Good job! Building in pauses is good, too.

    Thanks for commenting, all!