Friday, August 11, 2006

Teaching the longer, larger class: strategies?

In part because George has put out the call for us to resume our blogging about pedagogical issues, but mainly because I'm going to be back in those particular salt mines awfully soon, I've been giving some fitful thought to my teaching strategies for this coming semester. All three of the classes I'll be teaching are versions of classes that I've taught before (hurrah!), but all are going to have some kinks to them that are giving me pause.

The major kinks are these: all three of my classes are going to take place in class periods longer than those I've taught before, and at least one of them is also going to have significantly more students.

Two of my classes will meet twice a week, for an hour and a half each. In the past, my two-day-a-week classes have met for either an hour and fifteen, or an hour and twenty minutes. To my mind, that extra 10-15 minutes is a big deal when we're talking attention span and sleep prevention, and it means that I need to think seriously about mixing things up every single class period. This should be easy to do in my comp class, since a) it's a small seminar, and b) the nature of the class makes it natural to do a lot of different things in a single period--discuss the readings, outline their arguments, freewrite, workshop, whatever.

However, I'm a little concerned about my 2-day-a-week lit class, which will have 40 students in it. I've always done group activities in my literature classes, sure, but not every class period--and I've never before had a class larger than 30. A class of 40 students works out to 8 or 10 groups, which makes it awfully unweildy to do the kind of group work that I normally assign, wherein I have each group look at a particular passage or poem or character or whatever, do essentially the same thing to it (paraphrase a sonnet and identify as many poetic devices as possible, say, or answer a set series of questions about a character or event), and then present their findings to the class so that we can draw some larger conclusions, collectively, from their work.

Even more problematic is my third class. It's also a lit class, but since it's required for the English major, Regional U always offers it once a year in a 3-hour, one-day-a-week evening version. Guess who's teaching that particular version this year?

People, I have NO idea how to teach a 3-hour, survey-level undergraduate class--other than to make sure that I have a 15-minute break in the middle and that I do a whole bunch of different shit every period in order to keep us all awake: reading quiz, group work, board work, video clips, and mini-performances are things that spring to mind. But what does that mean, practically? How does one do all those things in a way that feels organic, and not as if one's just ordering them off the menu at random? (First course--a quiz! Second course--10 minute mini-lecture! Third course--call students up to the front of the room to read! Fourth course--split them up into groups! And for dessert--a 20-minute video!) And is there any way that I can make it more likely that my students will have actually done all or most of the reading by classtime?

What I'm looking for, I guess, is advice on a couple of different fronts:
First: successful ways of incorporating group activities into a larger class, especially on a regular, possibly daily basis.

Second: any non-group-based ways that you've found work well for breaking up the usual discussion/lecture format. (In the past, the major one I've used is collective board work of a brainstorming variety, where my students call out words or ideas and I list them in such a way that significant patterns emerge.)

Third: I'd really, really love to hear from anyone who has taught a 2.5- or 3-hour, lower-level class before (I'm expecting to have 25 or 30 students).
Anyone want to hook a sister up?


Bardiac said...

I've sometimes found that doing short writing bits works in longer classes; for example, say you're reading book one of the Faerie Queene, you have them each take one of the first five or so stanzas, and think about how they'd film it. Give them a chance to write, and then to underline their best ideas, and then get one or two to share the best ideas as a way to start the discussion and get them thinking.

Long classes, especially when they're large, are really difficult. Is there a way you can incorporate some images in there to get at cultural stuff but use different brain muscles (so to speak), or something like that?

I figure an undergrad class needs 2-3 different "activities" in a single evening "3" hour session, and then it drives me nuts. One of the most difficult things for me with that format is figuring out how to assign readings AND actually get them to do them well. For some reason, they seem to want to read for a one hour session instead of a three hour session.

Are you doing some drama? A three hour session would actually work really well for doing some performance work. And spending three hours on a play makes a lot of sense, or two hours on the play and an hour on a poem or other related text?

I'm looking forward to seeing what your better thinking readers suggest!

(Great topic, thanks!)

The History Enthusiast said...

I too am teaching my first longer course (1 hour, 30 minutes) and am trying to mix things up. I teach the first half of the U.S. history survey. On Tuesdays I am doing a lecture, 5-min break, and short discussion of a primary document. Then, on Thursdays, I am doing quizzes, videos, and discussions of secondary sources that pose larger historical questions (and pit two historians/schools against each other). I agree with bardiac's idea of making them think in different ways in order to keep them engaged. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I've taught three-hour classes to undergrads. First, of course, the 15-minute break halfway through is essential. Mostly, I'll confess, I use essentially the same teaching strategies and exercises, but allow everything to take longer. This works especially well with group work. It sounds like you and I have similar group work practices; the advantage to having more time is that you can give each group a comparable but separate project and have them each report back to the rest of the class (as usual), but then you can also have the groups respond to other groups, which I think motivates them to actually listen to their fellow students' reports (always a problem, I find). For example, sometimes I'll give each group a character and ask them to do something with the text related to that character; then I might have two different groups find textual evidence about and analyze the relationship beween their two characters. On a related point, having the students actually move physically (e.g., joining another group on the other side of the room) can keep the blood flowing and thus the brains oxygenated. Finally, in teaching those long classes I find that I have to pour much more energy into the classroom; students usually respond favorably to a professor's energy level, but that level needs to be higher in a longer class. (Which means that I used to be so wired after my three-hour evening classes that I wouldn't wind down until the wee hours of the morning.)

There's a lot that's a pain about these longer classes, particularly the fact that if a student misses a class, he or she just missed an entire week's worth of work. (So think carefully about your attendance policy. Mostly I just give a short quiz in every class and tell them that I'll drop their lowest score, which gives them one but only one "free" absence.) But on the plus side, a lot of students will be more focused, since they're not really on their way to anywhere else. That is, they're not thinking about their upcoming geometry quiz or trying to finish their French homework in your class, because your class is the last of the day and they're settled in with you for the entire evening.

I'll look forward to reading other folks' replies!

kfluff said...

I think I'd stress a lot of what others have said here. In general, the longer time period (whether the 1.5 hour or the 3 hour) gives you time to do some in-depth work with your students. Whatever your activity, I'd encourage you to continually give them something concrete to work with (a passage, an image related to the text, a film clip, etc.) so that they can focus on the concrete. I think working in the abstract for too long gets tiring to lower-level students really quickly. And I think WN's comment is right--the more physical activity you can have, the better off you are.

If you're comfortable with group work and plan to use it, you might think about having steady groups from the beginning, and asking them to be responsible for presenting on some part of the reading every 4-5 weeks. If that's a standing assignment for everyone, then it essentially takes care of one of your activities for the class for the entire semester, and this can really encourage students to make their assigned text comprehensible to others in ways you might not have anticipated.

Also, the 3-hour class is a perfect period in which to show a film, because you can show it in class and discuss it, which means they can read some secondary stuff on it as homework. Wheee!

As to non-group activities, you might play around with using your "significant patterns" idea in reverse. Have each student write his/her idea on a piece of paper, and pass that paper to his/her neighbor, who writes an association with the idea, until it makes the entire circuit. When the original author receives his/her paper back, s/he can assess the list of associations for a significant pattern to apply to the text.

This is a great question! I hope you get a ton of responses!

Unknown said...

Many, many thanks for posting on this - I'm teaching two 3-hour courses in the spring - one with 21 students and another with 36 (and a TA). All of these suggestions work well. The group work where you have to move around to meet with your group is definitely good - if not for a long class then for a large one. I had a very large class one time and it bombed (for many reasons I think), but I wish I'd gotten them moving and talking to each other more. I particularly like the "groups from the beginning" idea as well - that way you can build presentations into the class and you have less to plan each week!

I'm not sure I've added anything necessarily, but I'm loving all these ideas!

St. Eph said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
St. Eph said...

My first ever class in my subject area was a 3-hour monster on Big Willie. The first couple of weeks were trial-and-error, but we eventually settled in to a pretty effective structure.

I found it very useful to take advantage of what you call the "ordering off the menu" set-up. We were doing a play a week, so the first 20 minutes or so were spent on introducing the text, explaining oddities of plot or diction, taking content questions, and so on. Then we'd do a focused activity, sometimes group, sometimes not. I usually had handouts of some kind for this, just to make the activity look more structured and official. I recall doing close reading of images in a passage, paraphrase, meter, blocking a scene, that kind of thing. Then we'd break and come back for the presentation of the activity, often merging it with a version of your collective board work. Then, I'd wrap up with a preview of the next week's reading.

Within these broader segments, there was room to refine and focus in different ways. But I think that when faced with such a big, amorphous blob of time, having established structures helped both the students and me feel less overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done.

One of the main problems with the long class is that it doesn't give students the time they need to feel competent with the material, since they're only living with it once a week. I think this is why I started with the mini-lecture; it gives the class the basic ideas they need to start working with the text and makes them feel like they have a workable level of competence. The in-class assignments extend this, which makes the board work that comes after flow much more smoothly.

Whew, I hadn't realized that I had a novel's worth of thought on this subject. I'm actually struggling through the flip side of this right now--heading into a thrice-weekly, one-hour class for the first time. It's great to read everyone else's suggestions and tips.

Anonymous said...

I have taught those monster courses, usually in the summer. they are tough.

two things:
1. you will be tired out. Doing the teacher performance for that long is exhausting. Anticipate the depletion of energy on your teaching days.

2. make those students WORK. Give them tons and tons of mini-writing assignments (ungraded), have them read their writing aloud to small groups as part of a peer-editing process, give them mock essay questions and have them in small groups construct an opening paragraph in response. If the onus is on them to think, write, discuss, contribute, they will be more invested in the course and you will be less tired at the end of it.

and FWIW, the mini lecture is a great idea, but I'd be careful to keep it distinctly "mini." The temptation to just hold forth for a long time may be great, because you have so much time!, But your students will rebel against sitting there for the first half of the class just listening.

good luck.

Flavia said...

These are some GREAT ideas, folks--thanks so much, and keep 'em coming!

It does seem that there are advantages to the longer class, but I'm thinking that I'm really going to have to stress to my students, from day one, that they have to do the reading before class--and that they ought to spread it out over several days, in manageable chunks. Perhaps, in addition to reading quizzes, it would be a good idea to use an online site (RU has some weird, non-BlackBoard but Bb-like system that I need to figure out) and require my students to post once or twice during the intervening week with questions or a reading response or SOMETHING, so that they have an incentive to be working steadily throughout the week.

I'm also really concerned about the exhaustion factor, especially given that I teach my other two classes in the morning/early afternoon of that same day! If I lived in town, I'd totally go home and take a nap, but as it is I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I'm definitely NOT looking forward to being on campus for 12.5 hrs a day that one day a week.

(And FYI, Ren peeps: it IS the big dude I'm teaching in this 3-hour, go-for-broke format, though I didn't want to be so specific or so searchable in the text of my post.)

Anonymous said...

I've never taught a 3-hour literature class, but I have taught writing in the 3-hour format, and there are a couple of things that I discovered about it:

1. Don't be afraid to mix things up even if it feels fake. If you're very conscious of the fact that you have to change gears and it seems forced, just call it for what it is: "Time to shift our focus here; find a partner..." or whatever. Students are going to be aware that three hours is a long time, so they're not likely to judge you if the class doesn't unreel in one long, continuous spool.

2. Use handouts. I know this sounds dumb, because it doesn't seem like it should be different from any other class format, but your students will have a LOT to absorb in one day, and handouts can make it easier for them to retain it. I'm not suggesting that your lectures should follow an outline, which you should give them--just that any time you do an exercise or anything like that, you give them the instructions on a sheet of paper. (I often compiled a day's activities onto one sheet, and then used the paper cutter to divide the sheet into slips, which saves paper and keeps them from getting distracted by moving ahead.) Even if you do the sort of thing you describe, where you ask them in groups to paraphrase and analyze a passage, put the questions you want them to answer into a handout. The diligent ones will take it home and use it to keep the material in their heads.

3. Put a basic agenda on the board. Even the most attentive students in my class flagged sometimes (especially because our classroom was really hot) if they didn't know where we were in the night's activities. Try to keep some flex built in, though--it's HARD to estimate how much time you need, accurately, when there are three whole hours to get off track. Think about how often, in a fifty-minute class, you have five minutes extra or have to rush to cram things in. Well, in a three-hour class, that's fifteen minutes. I usually broke down our class into two or three items before the break and two or three items after.

4. Be clear about your expectation that they do a week's worth of reading and prep even though you only see them once. Don't let them get away with slacking, especially on the ground that they "didn't get it"--they have e-mail, and so do you, so make it clear from day one that you expect to hear from them BEFORE they've let themselves fall a full week behind by not doing the class work.

Tiruncula said...

Great topic!

There's one thing I really like about the once-a-week class: I have to be really clear with myself about the goals for each meeting - one text, one topic, once century, one skillset, whatever - whereas with more frequent meetings, I tend to keep a rolling set of topics and goals open. If there are only thirteen or so meetings in a term, I find I have to be really explicit at the syllabus-planning stage about what I want the class to get out of each meeting, and I find that makes for a more tightly-plotted course, as it were.

Otoh, the students are more likely to lose track of course-long threads if they only meet once a week. I like to take 10-15 minutes each class to take any questions on topics from previous weeks and to talk explicity for a few minutes about how the current week's work fits into the big picture. I find students appreciate having a time they know will be set aside for questions, curiosities, and loose ends that might otherwise get lost in the flow of discussion. I've found it works well to have that time right after break, or at some other point when you're switching gears anyway, rather than at the beginning of class when brains aren't quite in gear yet and the students haven't remembered what they wanted to ask. The brief discussion of big-picture issues can be combined with giving the assignments for the next week.

phd me said...

This is one of my favorite topics - I'm such a pedagogy geek. I may repeat some of the suggestions above, but here's my two-cents:

1. Group work. Get each group to work through a different question, then present that question to the whole class. Get each group to work through the same question, then have a agree/disagree discussion. Put students in small groups to tackle a creative issue - How would you present this scene to 16-year-olds? to 60-year-olds? to non-English speakers? - and have them act out their solution. Have groups create a 5 question quiz on the day's reading; switch quizzes with another group to complete. Having set groups from the beginning of the course is a good idea, but you might consider different groups each week. This puts more of a burden on you: you have to set up the groups before you get to class (I write the groups on the board before the students arrive but a handout would work, too). The more comfortable they are with their classmates, the better discussion will be; in large classes, they could go the entire course without meeting that guy in the corner if they choose their own groups.

2. Moving around. Absolutely! Physically moving their desks to create groups is great but if you can't do that, make sure the groups get up and meet in different parts of the room - or even out of the room. If they have 25-30 minutes to complete something, let them go out in the hall or to the empty classroom next door. Get them up to write on the board, present to their classmates, act out a scene. Use the students (like little puppets!) to demonstrate a concept in your lecture. Do a survey to start discussion - Is Macbeth a weak character? - by having the students physically plot themselves on a line. If you have a computer lab or library nearby, lengthen their break to 30 minutes and send them on some type of quest that will fire the next activity.

3. Activities. I've gotten more mileage out of a roll of butcher paper and flip charts than I ever thought possible. Summarize the theme of a sonnet or map the characteristics of the hero on paper and hang it on the wall. Design t-shirts, in answer to a discussions question, on little paper cut-outs of t-shirts (I know this sounds dorky but they seem to like it). Each group comes up with one discussion question, writes that question on the top of the paper, and hangs it on the wall; students then walk around the room, writing their answers on the paper underneath in a set amount of time, and you use the results for a class discussion. Writing on the board or transparencies works, too. (I don't know if you have access to these kinds of supplies, though. For that matter, I don't know if I do either, now.)

4. Breaking up discussion/lecture. Besides all the stuff I've already said, video clips are good. Use PP to show images (sometimes I use it when I lecture but not often). Bringing in pictures, music or objects that supplement the day's topic gives the students something besides words to focus on. Have the students turn to the person on the left/right/behind to discuss a question before you move on. Freewrites are great: ask a question, have them write continuously on that question for 5 minutes, have them share their answers with others or read them aloud - this is a good way to get the brain juices flowing at the beginning of class or after a break. Assign a new piece of material - short poem, passage from the next week's reading - and have them do an activity in pairs or small groups.

5. You. A 3 hour class is exhausting, so make sure you build in down-time for yourself. Twenty minutes of group work gives you time to recharge as you walk around between the groups, refusing to answer their question (unless they're really stuck) because they need to learn from each other. Get the students to write on the board instead of you always serving as scribe. Sit down; if you aren't always the focal point, you get a respite and the students start talking to each other instead of the big giant head in the front of the room. Take the break, too, instead of using that time to answer student questions or return papers - go to the restroom or get a drink from the machine or walk back to your office.

Sorry this is so long-winded! Like I said, I love to talk about this kind of thing. Hope some of it is useful!

negativecapability said...

You've already anticipated my suggestion, which is to have a Blackboard posting/e-mail response-type assignment due the day before or a couple of days before class to make sure they do or at least start the reading. I do this, and then start of the session with the suggested mini-lecture that works with and supplements (usually with historical context type stuff) what they've given me and asked questions about. That way, I can also single out students who said particularly cool things and let them elaborate on certain points without them feeling on the spot about it.

Flavia said...

You people are the best best BEST! See, this is why I turn to you in times of need. Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions, and if this 3-hour monster ends up rocking, it will all be due to you. (And if it doesn't, well, I absolve you of responsibility.)

I'll keep y'all posted as the semester goes along...