How can I do better than lecture to a small class?
January 22, 2010 7:39 AM   Subscribe

I am running a technical class that I have taught before. It is is usually part class discussion and part lecture. The enrollment is really low this time, and the discussion part isn't happening as I have quiet students. How can I restructure the class to make it work better?

I am teaching a technical, college-level class that I have taught before. Usually the class is large enough (12-15 people) that it works well to have partial lectures and partial class discussions. I ask a question as to how to design a computer system, and when I get an answer I drop into my lecture mode and show such a system with its flaws and benefits. I then ask how to fix the flaws, and on we go.

This time around, for various reasons, the class only has 5 people in it, and at least three of them are very quiet students. The class discussion part is just not working. I feel lame just running through system designs and lecturing on them to only a few people.

How can I restructure the class to make it better? I am looking for alternatives to me lecturing that encourage participation. I was thinking of having the students do reading, then working on problems as a group when they come into class.

I am looking for answers not only from teachers but people who had awesome, unusually structured classes as students.
posted by carpographer to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I stumbled on one thing by accident: the seating style is very important. If you want to encourage discussion they need to be facing each other. If they're facing you it's just a back and forth between them and you, not with each other.
posted by jwells at 7:50 AM on January 22, 2010

Maybe you need to step back and put them into "breakout" mode more often. Either in pairs or as a whole group.

Give them activities to do as a group with speific objectives and a time limit. Maybe it's answers to specirfic questions. Or ideas to improve a design. Or an analysis of the pros and cons of a design. Or maybe it's a design ideas of their own. Then go get coffee, grade papers, or whatever, while they work.

Allow them to flounder as a group and allow uncomfortable silence to work on them. If you step in and "rescue" them by talking, they won't learn to think on their own. Only intervene if it appears they do not get the assignment.

When the class convenes, have them report back on what they came up with. Make different people report back each time. Critique bothe the content and the presentation. Then engage in a socratic style examination of what they came up with.

Never ask class open-ended questions to the class. (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?...) Ask for specific ideas or concepts. And call on people directly if need be to make sure no one checks out mentally.
posted by cross_impact at 7:57 AM on January 22, 2010

The tips above are great. Can you offer extra credit for participation, or make participation part of the final grade?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:10 AM on January 22, 2010

I was in a history class that had graded discussions (obviously actually grading the activity is optional). For the class, we were given a certain general question like: What caused the civil war and we were responsible for researching historians from a couple of different schools of thought (it was slavery, it was economics, it was X etc.) and then come back to class and talk to each other about the research we had done. We then had a partial lecture and discussion with the professor about what we had read and talked about.

So I like your solution above of having them solve problems together. You can ask them to think about how to design a particular system for homework and then have them compare their answers with each other in a group in class. Then you can observe how they think through the process with each other and do your flaws and benefits analysis on what they've come up with together.
posted by Kimberly at 8:12 AM on January 22, 2010

You could work on a large project over the course of the semester. Structure your lectures and class discussions around things they need to complete the project. The students will be more likely to participate if they see an immediate use for what you're discussing and the class is small enough that you have time to help everyone with their projects. They could even do the project as one large group with you as a slightly hands off leader.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 8:58 AM on January 22, 2010

Move part of the discussion online. Some quiet people are more willing to express themselves in writing, and it could serve as a catalyst/primer for face-to-face discussion.
posted by msittig at 10:34 AM on January 22, 2010

Ask each of them why they are taking the class they are taking. They have to have some kind of motivation and ask them what they think they can learn from the class.

You could give them the option of writing versus talking about it, see which they pick. That gives you an indication of what they prefer. Sometimes they'll be too scared to speak in front of 4 other students, other times if one of them suggests writing, the others may bow in to social pressure.

Ask them what they would like from you? What is the best way to get things out of them? To where they respond/interact with you more?Take some feedback on your own style. Ask them how they prefer to learn?

Remember it's never too late to re think how you work a class especially when what you're doing you're not enjoying.

Also, maybe it's better you shift your focus to the students and their lives and lay the material of the lecture off a little bit for a couple of lectures, get to know them, that could potentially make the biggest impact. Start by asking them about their backgrounds.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 12:14 PM on January 22, 2010

- group projects in class
- cold calling -- uncomfortable at first, but eventually the quiet students will get used to talking when called on and feel less shy about raising their hands in the future
- participation as part of grade
- assign readings to 1 student each week and have them present and lead a discussion on the topic
- Socratic method
posted by melissasaurus at 2:07 PM on January 22, 2010

Also, I was in a humanities for engineers class this semester that was larger but full of people who didn't want to be there. One day when the discussion was particularly lame, the instructor asked us to turn to our neighbors and complain. That broke the ice enough to get us talking for the rest of the day.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 6:21 PM on January 22, 2010

As a student, I always liked it when professors bribed us with chocolate as an incentive make thoughtful contributions to the class discussion. My old history professor in particular had great aim -- she could accurately toss a mini candybar to any student in the room, even in the back row.

And yes, this seems juvenile, but it seemed to really work.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:44 AM on January 23, 2010

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