Whether we like or not, the constant push to increase university enrollments has turned most of our classes from the “S size” to “XL size” in a very short period of time. A class of 30 students in a course for the first semester of an academic year may expand to 100 or even 200 students in the following semester. It’s really scary and most of the time, faculty members are expected to do more with less. My colleagues and I are facing the same scenario at the moment and we are expecting an even greater increase in students number for the upcoming semester in September 2012. We have had the “luxury” of teaching small classes (capped at 35 per class) due to the nature of the courses offered, which is on second and foreign language teaching. However, in the forthcoming semesters, we will be losing our grip on such “luxury” and it is time for a change.
(Image for decorative purposes from: www.cpr.cuhk.edu.hk)
Of course, to lament the inevitable during coffee breaks or meetings would lead us no where. For the last couple of weeks, I find myself repeatedly heading back to the drawing board, trying to figure out the measures that can be taken to deal with super-large class. I have been pondering two very important questions: How can I improve my teaching pedagogy in order to meet this new teaching context? and How can I continue to focus on students’ learning experience and engagement amidst the institutional push to revert to one of the most traditional ways of teaching? As daunting as it may seem, I take this as a challenge rather than hardship though the increasing number of grey hairs on my head tells a different story.
I may not have “the” answers to both of the aforementioned questions, but I strongly believe technology can finally be our worthy partner in preserving the student-centred approach that I personally value the most in my classes. For too long, technological facilities provided to us are “under-used” and not maximised for learning. The idea of going beyond “PowerPoint Presentations” and “uploading of notes on e-learning portal” should be championed. More efforts are needed, but it would be beneficial. At the moment, I am trying out several web-based tools to allow students to participate in activities in smaller groups. During this period of trial-and-error, I have noted the following:
- Despite teaching in supersized class, it is always advisable to assign smaller groups to students (consider the XL class as a combination of many small groups) – I like to call them as Collective Groups of Intelligence. Online discussion activities, for example, can be directed according to the groups, allowing the instructor to monitor their responses easily. As shown in the screenshot of my e-learning page, discussion threads are split into groups and another thread is created for everyone to socialise. Student moderators for each thread can be selected to assist the process of monitoring.
- Move beyond PowerPoint presentations. Use web-based tools to allow small-group and student-centred activities to carry on even after class. The tools that I have personally tried include Twitter, Wikis, Glogster Edu and Issuu. The activities should be small achievable tasks to facilitate the completion of the bigger task (i.e. course assignments).
- For students presentations, try the Pecha Kuchas method. This method allows more groups to present as it is a presentation format in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each. Students need to learn how to present everything concisely and accurately without wasting time. This encourages preparation and proper rehearsal (especially in terms of language learning).
- As you are teaching in class, it would be good to chunk your presentation by allowing short breaks in between. During the breaks, think of a stimulus that can direct students attention to the content. This can be a short clip from YouTube or Vimeo or even show the screen capture of good responses from the students taken from the discussion threads done online.
Well, I am still exploring other alternatives and I welcome you to share your experience in dealing with large classes. Technology itself will not do wonders if you choose not to plan your lesson or activities properly. Despite all the tools available, we still need to spend time designing our activities in order to maximise learning in the supersized class. I personally believe that regardless of the class size, students’ learning experience should always be prioritized. Probably we cannot accommodate each and every student but at least we try our best to reach out to them-giving our best even in the worst circumstances.