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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Hiding in That Large Class? Not Anymore.

As Bon Chen hands out large colorful index cards he asks, “What are the barriers to teaching and learning in a large class?” He then says, “Write them down. Put your name at the top. You get one point for this.” The bewildered group of less than ten participants does as he asks, some chuckling over the idea of getting points for putting down ideas.

But Bob Chen, an Environmental Studies instructor and a presenter at the “Innovative Strategies for Larger Classes” forum, is serious. He collects our cards and promptly breaks us up into small groups to decide which barrier is the biggest. Again an index card is completed, this time with the names of each member of the group printed neatly at the top. “You earn another point for this one,” Bob announces. Each group selects a speaker who discusses the barrier as Bob debriefs us one by one.

If this scenario is starting to sound familiar then perhaps you have already been exposed to some of these new teaching strategies. Bob Chen is not only presenting ways to handles large classes; he is demonstrating them by forcing his attendees to participate. Waiving our colored index cards in the air, he demands to know, “Did you participate? Did you feel connected to the instructor and your peer group? Did you learn something?” We all nod our heads.

The large class is a distinct college animal. It can be recognized by the sea of slack-jawed faces listening blankly to a droning voice. Attendance is optional, class discussion is non-existent, and the teacher doesn’t recognize your face, never mind your name. Whether you love or hate it for its anonymous nature, there is a chance that the lecture class as we know it may become an endangered species.

Returning to his laptop slide show, Bob reveals how a combination of individual work and small group work (“peer instruction”), combined with a testing concept called “testing as teaching,” is a strategy for leaping the barriers posed by the larger classroom. Those index cards represent how he connects with his students, gauges where they are with the material, determines if they are participating and, of course, if they have bothered to show up. Students can earn up to thirty points by completing these participation exercises that count for 30% of their final grade.

Colorful graphs show improved attendance and quotes from student assessments reflect a generally positive response. Chen and his co-presenters Rob Beattie and Steve Rudnick feel that critical thinking skills, group negotiation, and effective oral communication are concrete take-aways from this method of teaching. All are skills that are needed in the real world and, with the increasing number of large classes, a new approach to connecting with the students is long overdue. “You can’t hide for good education,” says Bob.

If you’re not convinced that this type of teaching will make your Psych 101 or Environmental Studies classes more interesting, consider this: the midterm and final have two parts. One is completed individually and the other is completed in a small group. And yes, both scores count equally toward your final grade.