Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Feb. 9, 1996

Helping large classes learn: Faculty develop special strategies

by Anne Dolan

Landscape architecture professor Bill Boon says after 50 minutes, he is "absolutely shot." Adjunct zoology instructor Kathleen Flickinger says she can count on losing five pounds over the course of a semester because of it. "It" is not rock climbing or water-skiing or competitive ballroom dancing. It is teaching a large group of students.

Large is a relative term, but at Iowa State large isn't truly large until a class reaches about 150 students. Some departments' introductory courses attract 350 to 550 students a semester.

Large classes, a fact of life at large universities, challenge instructors. Individually and collaboratively at Iowa State, those who teach the masses have developed strategies to keep their students interested and learning.

While faculty members express them in different ways, the challenges to teaching large classes effectively are similar.

Steve Richardson, professor of geology and atmospheric sciences, calls it anonymity. "I like to get students to feel ownership for what's being learned and keep them engaged in the topic," he said. "In small groups, you can read faces and ask questions of them. In large groups, some are more interested and more engaged than others, so it's more likely you'll fail to see the subtleties of 'I don't get it.'"

That's one of the reasons Richardson puts in a lot of miles in the Coover auditorium, cruising the aisles Phil Donahue- style. "It takes them a while to realize they can interrupt me at any time. I stop at different levels purposely so they can do this."

Psychology professor Ron Peters calls it passivity. "The last thing I want is a group of passive listeners," he said. "It's so easy if you're not interested, to let your mind go."

In addition to roving the room to keep students active, he also likes to switch topics frequently. "I may lose some students for a little while, but I don't want to lose anyone for the entire class time."Several other faculty noted that large classes have the effect of students behaving like an audience rather than a class.

"You're not only teaching, you're entertaining," Boon said. "They will get up and leave if they're not motivated."Lee Anne Willson, professor of physics and astronomy, said the size and theater-like environment of new classrooms impedes students' spontaneity.

"In smaller classes, there's a very natural give-and-take. As the room gets larger, you have to work much harder to keep students with you," she said. "The barriers are farther out."Brent Bruton, professor of sociology, said faculty shouldn't feel obligated to entertain.

"This is not entertainment, this is a classroom, and we shouldn't engage in a comparison with Hollywood," he said. "I tell my students that in higher education, a lot of the learning responsibility shifts from the teacher to the student.

"Still, we need to teach with innovation and constantly assess what we do," he said.

As a sociologist, Bruton enhances his teaching by paying attention to attitude shifts and trends in college-age people. Part of that is reading relevant surveys and literature, but his department also sponsors an anonymous social survey of its own in the introductory sociology course. During the semester, he introduces the results in class, with comparisons made to survey results from previous years. Students are recruited to help with the survey analysis and class presentations.

The sheer numbers in large classes inevitably means a diverse range of majors and even greater variation in expectations and learning styles. Flickinger said it's the biggest challenge she battles in her introductory human physiology courses of well over 400 students.

"I see everything from the 'just get me through this' student to students interested in medicine who want to know everything I know," she said.

One solution she has is to give her students a copy of her notes.

"I assume they've read the text before class so I'm able to spend the lecture time clarifying ideas and answering questions," she said. "I have to fly through some things to get to the things they're really interested in."

Things like why knuckles pop or how far saliva travels when you sneeze.

Willson said every student must have an opportunity to learn, which means providing more information than any one student can master. "It's a significant change from high school courses, in which teachers don't offer what can't be mastered," she said.

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