Monday, October 5, 2015

Teaching Large Classes: Pre-Class Assignments

Time flies when you’re having fun.  Maybe this phrase is to blame when you realize week after week that your classes have flown by, and you didn’t have nearly as much time as you thought you would.  And if that weren’t troublesome enough, this challenge only increases with the number of students per class, forcing professors and students alike to feel rushed through material.

Professors at Vanderbilt university propose a way to alleviate these time constraint stresses by getting students engaged in class material outside of scheduled class hours, and then using in-class hours for discussion, collaboration, and debates.  Here's how they do it.

Students are assigned a pre-class bit of homework (much like the already are in most classes).  These homework assignments are more about involving students in contemplating the content rather than formulating structured responses, so the style of responses may vary throughout the semester.  Some examples of this pre-class homework are:
  • Watching a video
  • Responding to a news article
  • Developing an argument based on a reading
  • Choosing a quote from a reading that stood out to them
  • Reading a case study
  • Listening to a podcast
Even though the design of this pre-class work can look different each time, the goal is always to get students to begin thinking critically about the content on an individual level before arriving for class. 

Once class time does roll around, your students will have prepared an understanding of the content you will be covering.  It is suggested that you take some time to explain to students that being prepared for class includes: being able to make claims about the reading and use examples to back up those claims, make connections between the things they've read about and their own experiences, and be able to work with the text in a knowledgeable and insightful way.  (Asking them to create lists, annotate their texts, or write a summary of their arguments are all useful ways for them to prepare.)

Vanderbilt professors then utilize these developed ideas by arranging students into groups of no more than six students.  Ask your groups of students to discuss the responses that they came up with on an individual basis about the homework, and consider how their individual responses compare to one another.  You might even choose to assign another shorter reading for them to delve into as a group in order to stir up some new ideas.

Later, choose groups to share what they discussed concerning the main elements of class that day.  This may spike mutual agreement over a text, but it could also transform into a debate of ideas between class members, forcing them to decide on ways to structure their argument based on facts and ideas they have constructed themselves from the course material.

It's recommended to alternate using pre-class homework strategies like this one and regular lecture class days on a weekly basis so that students are able to interact directly with the material they are learning, and still gain insight through direct instruction.  Or, a daily combination of pre-class work alongside interactive lecture would work just as well.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

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