Engaging Students in a Large Lecture Class

There might be a fair amount of debate about the best way to get students engaged in a large lecture course, but I think even the most traditional lecturer knows that disengaged students don’t get much out of a class. Back in March I traveled to University College London and gave a talk for their Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics about all the ways I know to get students active and at least paying attention during a lecture.

The slides (posted here) are pretty incomplete on their own, but if you flip through them while you read the notes below you’ll get the basic ideas I was trying to communicate.

There are tons of ways to engage your students, and I think they all fall into these three broad categories.

1. Pure Presentation

  • Lots of low hanging fruit here.
  • Write on board
    • Forces students to take notes
    • Slows you down to their pace
    • Make sure to turn around often and make eye contact!
  • Use slides,
    • make them organized and readable
    • You can distribute ahead of time but don’t give away the farm
  • Vary the tone of your voice
  • Pause and read their faces to see if they are paying attention or have questions (works in a large class too)
  • Connect using examples they care about or at least know something about
    • Bad example: How did your grandparents decide when to retire?
    • Good example right after Thanksgiving break: Who takes care of older family members and why?
  • Use pictures (ideally relevant)
  • Create memorable moments
    • Key is unexpected
    • Can be “Can’t believe this is happening!”
    • Like these at the beginning of semester to set tone
    • Can also be “I thought for sure I knew the answer!”

2. Active Learning

  • Freeman et al (2015): “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”
    • Effects are remarkably large and consistent across disciplines
    • I’d bet a lot of money these results apply to Economics too though there haven’t been enough studies

Some examples of active learning in the classroom:

  • Clickers (e.g., PollEverywhere)
  • Ask students’ questions
    • Throwing them out there vs.
    • Cold call vs.
    • In between (“warm call”)
  • Small group exercises
  • Games
  • Prizes

3. Outside the Classroom

You can engage students outside the classroom too.

  • Online discussion board (e.g., Piazza)
  • Discussion section (Require TA’s make personal connections with students)
  • Office hours: Have to be careful here as many faculty don’t want students coming to office hours. I’m also not sure they are the most efficient use of an instructor’s time ina big lecture class. That said, it’s a great way to get to know students and provide extra help to the students that are really struggling. But how do you get students to come?
    • Require students to come at least once
    • Give out candy
    • Hold them at a convenient time
    • Personally invite struggling students
  • I meet with a subset of the class every week for lunch.

The Bottom Line

These are just ideas–There’s lots more you can do, but even just incorporating one or two things that you feel comfortable with is a step in the right direction.