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Forum focuses on teaching large classes

By Chris Pugh

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 38 - August 13, 1998

According to the faculty members most experienced at teaching large classes, the key to keeping students interested is far more than putting together a dynamite lecture.
Barbara Carlisle, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, has spent years teaching classes such as art history and humanities to 100 to 200 students at once.
Maintaining the class focus on the students is Carlisle's philosophy. "It's not hard if you remember it's about the students, not the instructor," she said. "It doesn't matter how fabulous a lecturer you are or how wonderful your slides or films are. There is a passive thing that happens. If the students don't have to do anything, they won't."
Carlisle and other faculty members with experience in large-classroom settings will be sharing their practical tips and techniques in a university forum titled Instruction in Large Classes on Tuesday, Aug. 18 from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. in Squires Colonial Hall. The forum is sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (CEUT).
Most instructors have mastered the basics of disseminating material to a large class, Carlisle said. They understand about microphones, big slides and the problems inherent in huge numbers of handouts
It's the more personal techniques that draw students out and get them involved that take more attention, she said. One of her favorites is to pair students for short exercises or to get areas of the class to work together to interpret and report on sections of a reading.
"When they have just 10 minutes to work together to read, digest and present a topic there is learning happening all the way around," Carlisle said. "You can't just lecture. Students will sit there and just take notes--it doesn't have to pass through the brain at all, you know. The idea is to keep people awake and alive," said Carlisle, who has been known to toss balls into a classroom to keep students alert.
Carlisle said she will often get to class early and walk among the students, asking about their weekends, what movies they've seen or the clothing they are wearing. "Talk to them like they are people. It makes them real to you. All these things affect attendance. You notice that they are there and they will show up," she said.
Tim Mack, professor and department head in entomology, has taken microphone use to another level in what he calls the "Phil Donahue" approach. One microphone is used by the instructor while another is taken into the audience, interviewing students and taking their questions. Information on a web site and handout books supplement the classroom discussion. "Students' written evaluations show they like it quite a bit," said Mack, who had 531 students in his Insects and Human Society class last fall. Enrollment in the class this fall was capped at 400 on campus and 150 distance learners, he said.
The idea for the forum on large classes came from a breakfast meeting earlier this summer between some Student Affairs department heads and administrators, said Landrum Cross, vice-president for Student Affairs. Among general topics and concerns discussed was the issue of faculty members assigned to large classes. "We wanted to respond to the frustrations these faculty members were experiencing," said Cross, who contacted Terry Wildman, director of the CEUT, with the idea of a pre-fall workshop.
Wildman worked with the Registrar's Office to determine the level of need for this kind of program and said he was surprised to find that class sizes during the 1997-98 academic year showed that there were approximately: 170 sections with 80-100 students, 170 sections with 100-150 students, 140 sections with 150 to 300 students, and another 40 to 50 with over 300 students. "These numbers indicate a need for support far greater than I had anticipated," said Wildman.
From these same records Wildman was able to pull the names of instructors most often facing large classes and sent direct invitations to the forum. The response has been good already, he said.
Wildman was also concerned that many of the students involved in large sections may be freshmen. "Probably a large number of these students in large sections are the newest and youngest people in the community. We want to do the best we can for them," he said.
Wildman hopes the forum is only a beginning. "There is no university-wide focus on large classroom instruction--no systematic support for people who teach these classes. Everything is handled department-by-department so there is uneven support. These faculty members are isolated from each other. It's hard to cross departmental boundaries; or for faculty members from one side of campus to talk to faculty members on the other side of campus. We hope this forum will start a conversation about this facet of instruction that will bring different disciplines together. We definitely plan follow-up activities to this forum," he said.
The team presenting the workshop plans to use the Colonial Hall setting to mimic a large-classroom experience, demonstrating their various techniques to involve the forum participants much as students would be involved in a classroom, Wildman said. "Why not do it in the same type of setting that the faculty members face. We are sort of `returning to the scene,'" he said.
For more information or registration contact CEUT at 1-6995, Wildman at 1-9109, or e-mail the CEUT at ceut@vt.edu.