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Teaching Fellow Shares Ways to Engage Students in Large Class

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“The first time was frightening, but it’s like trial by fire.  After the first five minutes, you either have to have confidence or you get eaten alive,” according to Beach Gray, of his first experience as a graduate student teaching fellow.

Now in his second semester as head lecturer for Russian Fairy Tales, a course with 225 students in the Slavic Languages and Literatures department, Gray says, “I still have nerves before each lecture, but that acts as an extra bit of adrenalin.  I need to go to class with a lot of energy and excitement about communicating new ideas to the students.”

New graduate student teaching assistants and teaching fellows may find it challenging to prepare to teach a large class, and in a recent interview, Gray shared the following strategies that have worked for him:

  • “The most important requirement is to have clear learning objectives for each class.  I focus on the skill sets and big ideas I want students to take away at the end of each lecture.   When planning to teach, I try to think of having a narrative or a story to tell.  I want to connect the materials and ideas we’ve been considering into the objectives of each day’s class.
  • “I dress in a suit and tie for each class so that students know that I’m serious.  When students know I’m serious about the subject matter and expectations, I can incorporate humor without a risk of losing students’ attention.
  • “To keep students engaged, I wear a cordless microphone and move around the class.  I speak clearly and use hand movements to emphasize points.
  • “I put a lot of planning and preparation into each lecture, but at the same time, I view a lecture as a dynamic process:  I am alert during a lecture for a need to slow down at certain points or to focus on some material rather than other material.
  • “It is important to vary the volume and speed.  I slow down to emphasize important concepts.  To engage students, I frequently pause to ask questions, sometimes asking for a show of hands and sometimes directing questions toward one student.  (These are generally questions with no absolute right or wrong answers.)  I always repeat the student responses to ensure that everyone has heard.
  • “I do use PowerPoint slides but believe in keeping them simple in order to emphasize main points.  Then I flesh out the main points in class.
  • “Although many students take this course as an elective or general education requirement, I try to expose them to novel ways of looking at things.  For example, in a recent lecture, I referred to Disney and Grimm Brothers to illustrate how fairy tales change when they go from appropriation to various adaptations and how information is shaped by particular contexts.
  • “I often incorporate film clips to demonstrate certain points and show how visual representation is different from written representation.  I expect that after taking the class, when students watch a film or read a novel, they will be asking themselves, ‘What is this telling me, how is it telling me, what is its hidden agenda?’
  • “When teaching a large class, I have to be on top of the game in administrative tasks like keeping track of details and responding to students emails.
  • “It’s important to draw upon the experiences and support of others in the department.  For example, I worked closely with Gerald McCausland, SL&L language coordinator, when I taught Russian.  I learned a lot about effective teaching—the importance of being self-reflective, thinking about how to improve and recognizing when I have done something effectively to help students learn.  The recitation instructors for Russian Fairy Tales have also been an invaluable resource and very instrumental in helping me to improve my lectures.”

MARCH 2012

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