Sunday, 25 November 2012

Teaching large groups - survival tips

On Wednesday 7th November, I attended a workshop at my workplace entitled – Effective Large Group Teaching. It was aimed at new teachers but I thought it might prove useful to me. In my previous job as the higher education resources adviser in a college, I used to regularly teach. There were generally a maximum of about 35 students in classrooms and ages ranged from eighteen year olds just embarking on a foundation degree to fifty year olds changing careers and retraining. Now working in a university, I have to regularly teach large groups - sometimes consisting of hundreds of students. Having always trained but never lectured I tend to find this quite daunting, hence my attendance.
A couple of teachers at the workshop revealed how they struggle with students being late and trying to help them catch up. For me, this can be awkward when teaching where they then ask lots of questions because they missed the content but I don't see it as too much of an issue in lectures as I just carry on doing what I’m doing. I don't think it’s fair on the people who made the effort to get there in time to spend it getting latecomers up to speed. I also think that if you do this you are making a rod for your own back as students will know here's no reason to turn up promptly.
Some tips that came out of the session:
  • Do not compromise your body language to use the microphones – either speak up or use a portable microphone. I must admit I've contorted myself in the past and it is quite uncomfortable, plus I'm still getting used to microphones
  • Move around – quite tricky with demonstrations but move around and use the floor space
  • Give gaps between sentences – ala Tony Blair – gives gravitas but be wary of leaving too long a gap as it can look a little silly
  • Repeat important sentences over but try to rephrase them – it isn't patronising it's reinforcing points
  • Try to ensure everyone has a seat - students can struggle to concentrate if they are squashed and uncomfortable 
  • Set out expectations of behaviour at the beginning. This is quite tricky to do when it is not your group of students and you are a guest, however, you can lay down a few ground rules at the beginning, for example, stand up to ask a question 
  • Be strict about talking - students can often have a school mentality, especially in the first year and are looking to pick holes in what you do. They haven’t matured to a point where they realise they are damaging their own chances of learning so it is important to clamp down on it and not just continue talking in the hope that people will quieten down 
  • If they are being too noisy stop talking - I’ve tried this several times and it seems to work as the students have then shushed each other - it does requires a steely reserve and the confidence they will not walk out though 
  • Have direct eye contact 
  • Tell them calmly and clearly if their behaviour is not acceptable – lay down rules
  • If the technology breaks – always give them something else to do, for example, a recap of the last session.
Some responses for hecklers...
“I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps you could find out and share it next week”
“That’s an interesting question – but do you think that is relevant here?”
“What do others think?”
“It looks like we disagree – shall we move on?”
For ramblers...
Ask them to summarise their main points
For hoggers...
Ask others what they think – do they agree?
Public Response Systems (PRS) were recommended as they are a good way of breaking up a session and useful for huge groups of 300, however, they can be quite slow and cumbersome and it is easy to lose the group while setting up the technology. I used to use Quizdom in a previous job and this was often quite fun - students liked learning through the rocket chase or car racing games we used. Bearing this in mind, I still might have a go using the system we have in my workplace or else use something like Poll Everywhere which I keep hearing good things about.
Having now delivered several lectures I realise that I am pretty good at training but lecturing is a whole new ball game and requires a completely different set of skills. A lecture is showing off your knowledge, it is a performance of sorts and the front of the lecture theatre is your stage and performance area.

I found out that universities don't tend to have guidelines or rules about lecturing styles which means you can do what you want BUT also means there is no quality assurance. Having heard varying opinions from students about their slide preferences I don't think there can be a hard and fast rule but as they become more demanding I think there may be pressure put on some lecturers to change the way they do things.
The ultimate aim throughout all of this is that students are there to learn – you can make them laugh and have a great time but if they haven’t learned anything then you haven’t done your job. This can be a fine balance to create but an important one.
What next?
  • Have a look at some of the university vocal coach materials - although I can project my voice, I often find it difficult to gauge its level so I hope this will help
  • Make sure I do less demonstration so I can move around more. This will also ensure I am focusing more on the benefits of using the databases 
  • Breathe and practise - working in a new institution and in a completely different way has really dented my confidence so I am trying to get it back. I know I know my stuff - I just need to keep reminding myself

Ultimately, none of this was rocket science, however, it gave me the opportunity to stop for a moment and think about how I do things and how I can improve. Since attending this session, I have delivered several lectures and workshops which I think have improved. Students have paid more attention and there has been more willingness to interact. Long may it continue...