College Teaching 101: Managing The Lecture Class

March 16, 2010, 1:43 pm

In February 2010, I participated in a Roundtable discussion about teaching lecture classes at Zenith. The following essay about teaching is developed from the notes I prepared for that occasion.

Why is it important to learn how to teach lecture classes well?

First of all, for many of us, lecturing will make up the lion’s share of our course load – whether you measure that in students taught (a SLAC) or courses taught (a research or state university.) Novice teachers live with the terror of a little-acknowledged fact: the lecture room is where your weaknesses, or your inexperience, are most easily revealed; it is where your expertise will be challenged most publicly, often by questions that come out of left field, questions that may be designed to undermine you — or not. Disturbing things happen in the lecture room because students (having not yet gone to graduate school to be schooled in academic etiquette) are cheerfully unselfconscious about interrupting your meticulous outline with a question, a bag of chips or a bathroom break; challenging your authority to demonstrate their own mastery of your field; or jiggling into the room in a tube top that is barely holding in an impressive upper shelf. You could easily be lecturing on the migration of black workers to industrial centers during World War II, and a student – who took the modern United States history survey because of a passion for HBO’s endless Band of Brothers series, will raise a hand to ask acerbically: “Was this strike before or after the Battle of the Bulge?”

Novice teachers will reckon with other issues they never dealt with as a teaching assistant, or when running an advanced seminar carefully culled from a dissertation specialty. Most of these problems aren’t intellectual, they are social. In fact, the lecture room can sometimes begin to seem like a sixteenth century theater, where sex workers recruited clients in the Grand Circle and urchins flung oranges to purchasers who dropped a shilling from the balcony. Until you get a grip on how to manage your classroom, students will be furtively – or not so furtively – checking their email and Facebooks, texting, chatting with their neighbors, writing funny things on their notebooks and sliding it to a neighbor, dozing, sucking down gallons of water or (inevitably) bumping across a row of people to get to the exit because “I have to go to the bathroom, Professor.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But think of it this way: the lecture class is not just worth learning to teach well because you will be judged on it when you come up for tenure, or because succumbing to perpetual humiliation and stress is not an option. The lecture class is worth learning to teach well because this is where you will build your reputation as a teacher. It is where you will recruit students into your upper level seminars, into your major and perhaps even into honors work a few years hence. It is subsequent to being exposed to your intellect and charm as one of 50 to 100 people that students will muse, during pre-registration, “Maybe I’ll take Radical’s seminar on the Cold War. I took the survey and it was pretty good.” As your students fan out onto the campus, they will tell their peers, the frosh who they guide as a Resident Advisor, and their teammates that you are worth learning from. In other words, if you have a reputation as a good teacher, you will get good students.

The corollary to this is: if you have a reputation as an indifferent teacher, you will get indifferent students. Unfairly, colleagues who are working desperately hard to teach well sometimes end up as the professor of last resort for students who, for whatever reason, were disengaged and uninvested before they met you. They are the ones who are fulfilling requirements; the ones who registered too late to get into anything else; the ones who majored in X because it has a reputation as a gut major. They are the ones who come in late, doze in the back row, and don’t even try to hide it that they are playing with their smart phones. Such people not only impede your chances of being successful, they are much harder to teach, because their indifference to learning has evolved into a more general commitment to indifference.

So what do you do, dear? It’s easy, really. You need to persuade students to cooperate with you in the business of learning. This is something that is often neglected in discussions about teaching: what practical steps can you take to work with your students to create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning?

There are three basic principles: establish the rules; know your audience; and make personal contact.

Establish the Rules. Every social space has its own etiquette, and similar social spaces do not always have the same etiquette. While there are some things that students know they shouldn’t be doing in class (surfing the web, indulging in side conversations, passing notes) there are other things that vary from classroom to classroom (eating and drinking, leaving the room for reasons of hygiene, coming late or leaving early, cutting class entirely.) Instead of establishing a set of rules and becoming an enforcer (something that is easier to get away with when you are older and your reputation as a cantankerous old fart is well established), consider setting aside a portion of the first class to consult your students about what they think is appropriate classroom behavior.

Questions you might ask them are: How many classes should a student be allowed to cut before the final grade is affected? What is our policy on late papers? Do we allow re-writes – and if so, how much can the grade be raised? What is our policy on coming late to class? Rescheduling exams? Is it OK to leave the room in the middle of class? Do we need a reminder to turn off cell phones? You would be surprised how thoughtful students can be about what kind of classroom they would like to learn in. Often the rules they suggest are far more rigorous than yours might be, and need to be moderated. Once the room has agreed on some basic principles, emphasize that the rules are theirs and that they need to be responsible for them. If and when a student’s participation becomes a problem, it is easier, and more effective, to point out that the rules are not arbitrary: they were established and agreed to by the group.

Know Your Audience. Ask students to evaluate the class informally at several points in the semester. While the end of term evaluation that the university asks for can be helpful to some extent, its one-size-fits all quality is usually better suited to comparing faculty with each other than it is to learning detailed information about the class you actually taught. Ask students to fill out an end of semester evaluation devised by you, in which you ask them specific questions. Devise a midterm evaluation so that you can correct for things that aren’t working well before it is too late. All evaluations should be anonymous to encourage frankness, but should also ask students to comment on their own efforts to date, and how you can better support them. This encourages students to think about their responsibilities as well as yours — something a university form, which students know will be used for a tenure evaluation, does not
emphasize. Hence, students will often use that form to “grade” you in retaliation for the grade they expect to receive, rather than to reflect honestly on what they committed to the course.

I would also advocate setting aside a portion of the first or second class to pass around a short questionnaire in which you ask students a few things about themselves and what they want from the class. Ask them about their major, where they are from, and what their other interests are. Ask them what interested them in the class in the first place. Ask them how many hours a week they work, and at what.

Knowing the intellectual profile of the class can give you a good sense of where you need to pitch the work. It also allows you to do something that for many students is utterly novel: call on them as if they were knowledgeable people who had significant lives outside your class. For example,

“Stacy, you are a physics major. Can you explain to the class why Einstein’s theorem might have been so influential outside of science?”

“JJ, you are in ROTC – what ideas about leadership might have characterized the veterans of World War II as they went into the civilian workforce?”

For those of you who think this is just sucking up to students to get good teaching evaluations, think again: students who feel invested in will invest in you; students who are treated with respect are more likely to respond respectfully; students who are permitted to speak as experts will gain confidence in themselves and learn better; and students who feel like you notice them may make a special effort to get you to notice them again by being their best selves.

And this leads me to my final point:

Make Personal Contact. The hardest part of this is probably the most important: learning their names. While students will understand why this is difficult for you, it hurts their feelings when you don’t, because of course they remember your name. A particularly unpleasant version of name amnesia is when – and it happens all the time – there are, say, two black men in the class, or two Asian-American women, and the white teacher repeatedly switches up their names. (If you do this, you need to apologize privately: I can’t tell you how much students are hurt by it.)

Before calling the roll, ask students to correct you if you mispronounce their names, or to say if they wish to be called by another name. Note that all students may wish to tell you, publicly or privately, what pronoun they wish to have used to describe their lived, as opposed to their apparent, gender.

Create teaching situations that help you attach bodies to identities more or less invisibly. Schedule small group work where you float around the room and ask members of each group to introduce themselves. Call the roll frequently in the first few weeks. Use a seating chart for the first two weeks, annotate it as a cheat sheet and call on people. Print out the version of the class list with pictures and keep it on your podium. Insist on meeting each student personally in the first two weeks, even if this means scheduling extra office hours. Give each student hir own appointment: this is not only courteous, so that no student is kept waiting for 45 minutes for a 5 minute session with you (their time actually is as valuable as yours), but it is sneaky. As a student walks in the room you chirp, “Hi Terry!” Actually using Terry’s name is the first step to remembering it, in my experience.

Another way of making personal contact is to walk your classroom and make eye contact. Zenith’s (Not Really) New President actually does this in faculty meetings, and I have no idea whether it is deliberate or not, but it was interesting to experience the effect of something I have done for years: when students have to follow you with their eyes, they are more likely to listen actively. More important, your physical proximity to students – say, in the back row – makes it more likely that they will have to connect to your voice (and your mind) in a more intimate way even though they have chosen distance.

Be aware that students are in the back row for all kinds of reasons, one of which can be shyness. If your lecture class includes time for class discussion, you will notice that perhaps a third (or fewer) of your students actually have the confidence to speak in front of a large group. Remember that feeling of your throat closing involuntarily during your first lecture, or the first time you said something in a department meeting? Well most of the students in your class feel exactly like that: that they will open their mouths and nothing but choking sounds will come out. Announce in the first couple classes that you would like to help students speak in class, and meet them in office hours to devise strategies for them (my favorite is the canned question: write it down in your notebook, read it out, I will praise you lavishly and you are done.) Create a class blog that counts as participation if they post entries. In small group work, appoint the non-talkers as group reporters, who will present the group findings at the end of class. Ask non-talkers to read aloud an important passage of an assigned text so they can hear their own voice in the room.

Finally, do you have a troublemaker? The one who is always questioning your intellectual authority? The one who believes ze could probably teach the course hirself? The one who marches in ten minutes late, and takes another five minutes to get settled? The one who is always asking some attention-getting question that has nothing to do with what you are talking about, and is totally breaking your rhythm? The one, who you think, on bad days, is a plant from Campus Watch? Surprise hir. (Metaphorically) embrace hir. Ask hir to lunch. Find out what is going on in as subtle a way as possible, and then find some opportunity to give a compliment (even if you have to work really hard to think of one) and be explicit about what has to happen next. For example: “You are obviously very engaged with the material, and I appreciate that. But you could choose to derail this class with [named behavior], or you could make a huge contribution to its success. Which are you going to choose?”

In other words, invest in this student. Believe me, this is going to have a much better outcome than complaining to your friends about the kid over drinks, dreading it every time that hand goes up, or plotting your response to the horrible teaching evaluation you will get from hir. It’s an alternative to being defensive — it’s what we call teaching. Because the point is, even in a lecture class, each student is an individual, and wants to be treated like one. That’s when they learn best.

And when they learn, your class will be a success.

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