6.5 Enlivening large classes

If you employ one or more of the techniques described in Chapter 3 your classes are probably already lively. If not – read on:

The role of humour:  I am a fan of the light touch. Not everyone finds humour easy to inject into a lecture, but it is worth considering some of the advantages: It breaks up the lecture, ensuring that students are awake (I’m not entirely joking); it may provide memorable moments, helping students to recall particular topics; it provides opportunities to relate your subject matter to issues outside the class room. Don’t worry that you might be sending a message that your subject is not to be taken seriously – there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate how serious you are about engineering and your part in it. Humour, if sensitively done, also provides an opportunity to demonstrate to overseas students the ‘English’ perspective on life. In my view a mature engineer should be able to step back and look quizzically (and therefore critically) at their discipline.

Walk about!  Make yourself visible as an accessible human being to all the students by moving around the lecture room or theatre either while speaking or while the students are engaged in tasks.

Try to learn as many names as possible, or at least have a class list and select random names to answer questions, not just the faces you recognise or those sitting at the front. If you have a clicker system you may be able to use this to identify and call on random (but named) students.

And finally – be passionate and responsive. If your passion for engineering is not palpable, how do you expect your students to catch it?  If they do catch it, they will want to engage with you, so you must respond quickly and enthusiastically.

Better still than what I have written above would be not to have large classes! As I interpret it, the sole driver for large classes is the financial economy of scale provided by “teaching” hundreds of students in one place using only one teacher. But if this is not stimulating good learning, what use is it? You do have a (modest) element of control over this issue: You could choose to teach your class of N students by setting prior learning and then running smaller tutorial or CQ (concept question) classes of N/4 or N/6 students. Your “contact” time goes up by a factor 4 or 6 (or maybe less if these much more effective classes are only offered at half the frequency of the previous “lectures”). However in reality this is an increase of perhaps 3 or 4 hours per week for the duration of the module, with no additional preparation time required. This is not asking such a lot of you. However it does put increased pressure on the timetabling of rooms, so don’t expect your School administrator to love you.

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