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From Fifty to Two Hundred Fifty: How to Teach Large Lecture Classes

Allison S. Gabriel

From Fifty to Two Hundred Fifty: Figuring out How to Teach Large Lecture Classes

 

Allison S. Gabriel

University of Arizona

            This summer, I joined the University of Arizona’s Department of Management and Organizations in the Eller College of Management as an assistant professor. I was (and continue to be) incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the group and found myself eager, and anxious, to begin my new position. Compared to when I first left graduate school for a life in academia 2 years prior, I felt a bit more efficacious in my abilities as a researcher and liked how my pipeline was developing. I was also fortunate in regard to my teaching requirements in that the class I taught at my previous institution was going to be the same at Arizona: same textbook, same general lectures/activities, and, with some modification, a team project that felt very similar to what I had used previously. However, one big difference emerged as I entered the classroom this fall: my class, which has previously been capped at 48 students, now had 216 enrolled. A not-so-subtle difference in classroom settings is a major understatement. Instead of sitting on the front table chatting with a smaller group of students in class (one semester, my honors section only had 10 students!), I now found myself hooking on a mic prior to each class and trying to figure out how I could possibly connect with everyone.

            About 4 weeks into teaching the course, I flew back to my hometown—East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania—to visit family and return to my high school for a ceremony tied to the music programs; I was an active member of the choral and band programs when I was in high school (back before Pitch Perfectand Gleecame out making show choir kids cool!), and because I hadn’t returned to my high school since graduating over 10 years ago, I felt like it was a nice time to go back and visit with my former music teachers and see how things had changed. Many of my former teachers were there, and it was a blast from the past in the best possible way to see friends who had gone their separate ways all coming together for this night. Of course, after not seeing some people for so long, there was a lot typical catching up, which involved me talking about Mike and our household full of pets, I-O psychology, and life as a professor in a business school. Although people were interested in what I was teaching, they were more interested in finding out how big the classes were, and jaws certainly dropped when I mentioned the class size. Strikingly, when I described my day-to-day teaching experience to one of my high school choir directions, Linda Schaller, she mentioned that she was thrilled to see my choir education getting put to good use. Back in the day, I actually thought for a period of time that I was going to be a music major, so in a lot of ways, it always felt as if I had abandoned things I learned in the choir or band room. But, I realized in this visit, and in the 4 weeks I had been in the large lecture hall, that there were important lessons learned from my music experience. In fact, many of these lessons were ones I engaged in on a daily basis without even knowing it. 

            As a tribute to the blast from the past I experienced back in September, here are some important lessons I have gleaned for teaching large lectures to undergraduate students. I should note that all of these can be helpful whether you are teaching five students or 500 students. But, here is what has mattered most to me during the fall 2016 semester:

Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More

            When it came to preparing for concerts, there was never such a thing as too much practice; in fact, I distinctly remember my high school choral directors encouraging us to rehearse up until the point we felt really confident, and then continue to do so for an added bonus. This point is especially crucial when you have 200+ pairs of eyes locked on you during a lecture. In a smaller classroom, I found that teaching felt much more like a conversation; it also helped that, when there were only 50 students, it was easy to learn the names of every student to encourage the conversation if needed. Now that I am in more of a “pure lecture” mode, I find it even more important to know my “lines,” whether it is additional facts or research I want to bring into the class lecture, definitions of focal constructs, and examples I want the students to work through. I find this helps me shake my nerves when I walk into that big lecture hall, knowing that the practice is there.

Make Eye Contact

            A big part of performing is making eye contact with the audience. In the performing arts, it helps you connect to individuals and convey the meaning of the piece you are performing; in the classroom, it helps provide social feedback to make sure that students are connecting to the content you are teaching and can help inform your level of explanation. In a huge room, where students can easily fall in to “feeling like a number,” making eye contact is my way to let all students know—even those all the way in the back—that I am gauging where they are in class for that day. Moreover, eye contact is a way for meto convey the emotional tone of the material and a way for me to understand how students are feeling. In my research with Alicia Grandeyand Jennifer Acosta(e.g., Gabriel, Acosta, & Grandey, 2015), we found that eye contact is a key nonverbal cue that signals how individuals are feeling and encourages emotional contagion (e.g., Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). As an added bonus, this is usually how I can catch students who are trying to text under their desks—the joys of technology!

Stand Up Straight, Don’t Chew Gum, and Speak From the Diaphragm 

            Writing this part of this article just makes me laugh, as I can remember hearing one of my high school choir directors calling me out for violating all of these during a choir rehearsal (sorry, Mr. Lantz!). But, they matter! When was the last time you saw someone chewing gum or slouching that actually looked professional? I would wage that the answer is never. When you are the focal point for a 75 minute lecture, presentation—both your literal slides and you as a lecturer—is crucially important as they convey both perceptions of competence and boosting self-confidence (maybe some power posing before class can help as well; e.g., Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2015). When it comes to speaking from the diaphragm, if it works to help you project when singing, it can certainly help you when lecturing. 

Take Risks and Improvise

            As easy as it is to fall into a “typical” lecture format in a big classroom, I’ve realized that breaking from the mold can help keep students—and me—on their toes. This fits back to improvisation techniques I picked up in choir singing jazz and in high school drama class. For instance, I like to think on my feet and encourage “spot debates” on issues we are discussing in class. One that I love is the debate about the utility of the MBTI. In this activity, I have students read two commentaries—one by Adam Grantwho is against the MBTI (Grant, 2013), and one by Rich Thompson who is for the MBTI (Thompson, 2013)—and write a response as to which side they find themselves more supportive. I then ask for two students at a time to come to the front and “role play” Adam or Rich in this debate. It often generates some laughs as students impersonate folks who they have (more often than not) never heard speak before, and it wakes everyone up. As an added bonus, being in a large lecture hall means there is often a hand-held mic at the front of the room that allows me to move around and solicit comments from students during this debate and during nondebate days in class (think the TruTV show “Billy on the Street” meets an Organizational Behavior class; instead of questions about pop culture, I like to ask questions about commitment, job satisfaction, and ways to measure job performance [so, basically the same as the TV show]).  Just because a class is big doesn’t mean that students should get a pass on having to think on their feet, and the same goes for me as their professor. 

Embrace Help

            Perhaps the toughest adjustment for me personally has been embracing help. In order to teach my class, I have a small army of teaching assistants (one graduate and four undergraduate assistants to be exact). In a lot of ways, they mirror the roles played by supporting actors or stage hands in a play; without them, the show would not go on as smoothly as it does on a day-to-day basis. They help with grading assignments, coordinating aspects of the team project and meeting with students to ensure team project success, and proctoring exams. At the beginning, it felt as though I was relinquishing control, and it was not a feeling with which I was entirely comfortable. However, over time, I realized that my sanity, and my ability to be productive in other areas of my life, really depended on having this built-in support system. Of course, there was a learning curve in figuring out how to use my teaching assistants effectively in order to make sure it was a fruitful learning experience for them, and this came with me holding team meetings to discuss issues related to grading, delivering feedback, and other types of student–professor processes that become second-nature to many of us, but it can be challenging at the start. Although this was the part of the large lecture teaching process I had the most concerns about, I am already looking forward to next fall to see how I can continue to improve the experience.

Conclusion

            Teaching a large lecture has been a huge adventure and has provided me a substantial learning experience in my young academic career. To those teaching large lectures: Embrace the challenge, and have fun! And, since I’m writing this around Thanksgiving and it is the season to give thanks, I would be remiss to not take this time to thank profusely my teachers who gave me some of this “know how” way back when. Deborah Booth, Kyle Glaser, Susan Jordan, David Lantz, Linda Schaller, and Lisa Wong—this one’s for you.

References

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2015). Review and summary of research on the embodied effects of expansive (vs. contractive) nonverbal displays. Psychological Science26, 657–663. doi: 10.1177/0956797614566855

Gabriel, A. S., Acosta, J. D., & Grandey, A. A. (2015). The value of a smile: Does emotional performance matter more in familiar or unfamiliar exchanges. Journal of Business and Psychology30, 37–50. doi: 10.1007/s10869-013-9329-2

Grant, A. M. (2013). Goodbye to the MBTI, the fad that won’t die. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-grant/goodbye-to-mbti-the-fad-t_b_3947014.html

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, R. (2013). The Myers-Briggs assessment is no fad – it’s a research-based instrument that delivers results. CPP Blog Central. Retrieved from http://www.cppblogcentral.com/cpp-connect/the-myers-briggs-assessment-is-no-fad-its-a-research-based-instrument-that-delivers-results/

 

            

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