Five simple techniques to make your large lecture more engaging

Your course is large, and only getting larger. You would love to be a more effective teacher, but a major course redesign is not going to happen between now and the first day of class. Here are five simple ways you can make even a large lecture more engaged and interactive.

Stop and ask a question (and collect the answers)

Holding a deep focus for longer than 20 minutes is difficult for even the best students. And many students are collecting notes, but not really thinking about what you are saying. Take 5 minutes from your course content, and ask students to answer a question on an index card to turn in. Sample questions:

“Which of the following molecules is nonpolar, and why?”
“Name three examples of the protagonist being unsympathetic we have seen in our readings so far.”
“How would the supply curve change if the price doubles? Draw the old and new curves.”
“Explain how to solve this equation to your neighbor, and write down the part that was most difficult to explain”

index cards

You can even ask students to think about their own learning.

“What are the main topics I have covered so far?”
“Which aspect of the lecture has been most confusing?”

You can skip the index card and just ask, but most students will not want to answer. The index cards can be collected and sorted by a TA during the rest of the class period and graded for participation only. Students need to know to bring blank index cards each day, or a digital collection tool like Google Forms or Canvas can be used. Many faculty use clickers to motivate students to participate in discussions.

clickers

 

Have students sit with their TAs

If you are a large course with labs or discussion sections, your students have a TA as well as an instructor. On the first day of class, announce that students will be sitting with their TA while in lecture. Ask a TA to make a color-coded seating chart like this one:
image

This version is made in Powerpoint, and the names inside each colored area can be changed. Consider moving the TAs one spot clockwise every week or so, so students are not trapped in the back (or front) of the lecture hall. Even if you don’t change anything else about your class, this slightly-assigned seating has several benefits:

  1. TAs and students get to know each other a bit better
  2. TAs won’t sit together in class (they tend to be somewhat bored and sitting together doesn’t increase their attentiveness)
  3. Students can turn in participation items to their TA, who can sort and grade them during class (see above).
  4. Students who normally sit in the back with their friends and talk or internet surf are more likely to be sitting with strangers and will behave more appropriately.

 Turn regular quizzes into group quizzes

Do you regularly give a quiz at the beginning of some class periods, then go over the answers? You may find group quizzing to be an intriguing alternative. The technique:

  1. Students enter and the normal paper quiz is passed out (normally multiple choice or short answer). Students complete and turn in the paper.
  2. Students then get into groups of 3-4 and introduce themselves. A single copy of the quiz is given to each group, and they write their names at the top. The group must then agree on the answers (this can be with or without book or notes, as you see fit). The instructor walks around the room and looks at student progress to gauge which problems are still giving students trouble.
  3. The group quiz is turned in, and students receive the average score of the two quizzes.

group quiz

This activity generates a great deal of discussion about the course content as students attempt to explain their reasoning to each other. They will often ask you questions, which gives you feedback about what parts of the question are difficult. This activity is most successful if questions are difficult but doable by prepared students.

Use a randomized class list to call on students

Very few students enjoy asking or answering questions in large lectures – there are few worse things than advertising that you don’t know something. This means that asking for volunteers will rarely produce responses from a diverse representation of your class. The difficulty with calling on students is that all instructors have inherent biases that can cause them to more often call on one gender or ethnicity (example with references). Using a randomized list to call on students will increase participation in a way that is fair to all students. Generate a list each day using Excel or Google Sheets:

randomize

There are several ways to make this practice “safer” for students who might be terrified of being called on.

  • Recognize that calling on students is rarely done in large lectures, so students will not be good at it. Persistent training in the first few weeks where you clearly reward students for responding loudly, clearly and concisely will reduce student resistance.
  • For difficult questions, have students discuss with a neighbor or small group, then ask the person you call on to tell you “what did your group answer?”
  • If your discipline strongly values effective public speaking, make this one of your learning goals, and regularly say that this is important for your class and for the major. Praise a student if they comment in a discussion with clarity or conciseness, or bring in appropriate evidence, or correctly reference a comment made by a previous student.
  • Say “thank you for your answer/response” regardless of its correctness. If you need to correct it, you can address your comments to the class as a whole, rather than to the student in error. “This is a common misconception that most of your classmates would likely also have given me.” or “I had the same sort of answer when I was first studying X.”

Ask “What’s the Principle?”

For courses that require problem-solving or application of particular theories, regularly take five minutes to ask students to apply content from earlier in the quarter. This can often be done by showing a problem or case study or sample art form on a slide, with a “What’s the principle?” written at the top. The purpose is not to necessarily solve the problem, but to cause students to think back over all the previous content in the course to determine which principle to use to solve it. This process of forcing students to think about older topics along with new ones is called interleaving and is associated with improved learning.

As with all classroom techniques that ask for student response, this activity works best if you reward participation. Perhaps collecting index cards or using cold calling will encourage students to do the hard thinking. Once they have gotten used to responding to your questions, you can try getting a few students to volunteer principles and then having the class vote.


 

If you have questions about how to apply a technique given the circumstances in your own classroom, CEI is happy to meet with you to find the most effective methods for you. Contact us at cei3000@uci.edu for a free consultation.