When Teaching Large Classes, Professors Shouldn’t Try To Put On a Show

Digital Learning

When Teaching Large Classes, Professors Shouldn’t Try To Put On a Show

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 31, 2017

When Teaching Large Classes, Professors Shouldn’t Try To Put On a Show
Rachel Davenport, senior lecturer at Texas State U.

Large classes pose tough challenges for instructors and colleges. After all, how do you craft a meaningful experience for 250 people (or more)?

Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer at Texas State University, has taught so many large classes that she jokes she has trouble readjusting to a small seminar room. She has been recognized with several awards for her teaching, and students regularly sing her praises (she was named “Best Professor at Texas State University” in 2013 by readers of Study Break magazine.)

EdSurge sat down with Davenport last week during the WCET conference in Denver to talk about her approach to teaching, and what technologies she’s tried—and ones she avoids.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: Students these days have seen TED Talks and other slick productions. Do you feel pressure to put on a show for them in these large lectures?

Davenport: Yeah, I did. But not anymore. There are ways to make it feel less like you are performing for them for an hour and 20 minutes and more collaborative. I stop every 10 or 15 minutes and I ask the students a question that they have to work on. They often work together on it in small groups. That's only a break of two, three minutes tops, maybe. But, it breaks it up so that I'm not just on a stage giving a show for a while. It pulls them into it.

If you try hard to put on a show, it doesn't go as well. You're not focusing on the material. If you can let that go and just focus on the material and what you love, and try to get it across in an understandable way, everything else just sort of goes smoothly

So, it doesn't have to be perfect?

I would say I am probably, of my colleagues, the most awkward professor. I stumble over words often. I put my foot in my mouth. I am a bit ditzy. I think my students actually kind of find that endearing when I sort of embrace it and I'm silly about it. They're pretty forgiving, especially when they know my intentions are good and I'm trying hard.

You know, that's a very different stereotype of a professor, right? Isn’t a professor supposed to know everything?

I really dislike BS-ing. So, if a student asks me a question that I don't know, that's excellent. That means we both get to learn, not just them. Because they get a question answered, but me too because I can look it up and figure it out or it tells us where there's holes in the knowledge. We don't know everything. I actually think getting to say, "I don't know, let's look it up," is collaborative—we're learning together. This is not just ‘I'm gonna spit out a bunch of information at you that you're just gonna memorize and that's it.’ It really makes it a more ‘we're all in this together’ kind of a feel.

I know of some professors who feel like the way to do it is to be very authoritative. And some students actually want it, according to some surveys and interviews that I've done. So, do you get any pushback for not knowing the answers?

That's right that there are students that want to feel that sort of overwhelming confidence that their professor knows everything. But I actually get the opposite in my student evaluations at the end of the course or if you check Rate My Professor or anything. I often get comments that they appreciate that I will say if I don't know something.

There's a lot of efforts to kind of tweak large lectures by bringing in technologies of various sorts. Do you use any?

Let me tell you about what I use, but then let me tell you there are all sorts of other ones that you can use. there is a piece of technology that I use called Top Hat, which is a student response system. Students can get it on any kind of device– phone, tablet, laptop. I use this system where I activate a question every 10 or 15 minutes and they answer the question and then I get immediate feedback. If you see that they didn't quite get there, it's a good opportunity to either go back or to give the students some time and say, "You know what, talk to your peers some more and convince each other of why the answer is whatever you put." Usually if I do that, I just give them two minutes. I will go back and look and everybody's got it right.

You don't tell them the answer?

No, I don't even say what the right answer is. So, they teach each other. That peer learning is so important.

Is there a technology that you feel is over-hyped or that you've tried and didn't work?

One of the things that I am foregoing, although many of my colleagues are using, are the online platforms by publishers where they students do lots of online homeworks. There are adaptive-learning components, all sorts of things that are available from the publishers. Those things are, to me, great in majors courses. In my non-majors Intro course, those sorts of things are awfully time consuming

I find myself backing off on requiring a huge amount of out of class work. Some people might just say, "No, these are assignments that are useful." But if my learning goals are met without using those, I don't see the necessity in requiring students to purchase access to spend all of that time.

That's interesting because I believe there's a theory that most student learning takes place outside of class, on projects and homework. Do you kind of not agree with that?

I think that's probably right. I do encourage my students to form study groups. I give them this exam review that they work on, hopefully. I recommend that they're working on it each day a little bit after class. So, my hope is that they are actually spending time outside of class.

I think the issue for me is that this is an intro course for non-majors. The stuff isn't rocket science. If my students are learning really well without these expensive tools, I don't feel the need to pull in some new technique. For my majors courses, for example, especially my junior, and senior level classes, they're doing a lot of out-of-class work. But, I really don't want to do this thing where I think what I'm teaching is the most important thing in the world and the students should be spending all of their time on my course and be the most interested in it. I think that's really, sort of, naïve and arrogant.

You mentioned Rate My Professor. I wanted to say you are very highly rated in the Rate My Professor. For those who don't know it, it's an anonymous site that students find on their own. They often, I think, use it to choose classes from what I'm told. The top rated comment is: "Doctor Davenport is seriously the only person you should ever consider taking for whatever she teaches and I'm completely serious."

That's very flattering.

But I'm sure you've seen that a lot of times the quality as judged by these anonymous students on this site. And often in the next breath the students will say that it's an easy A and that’s why they like it. Some of those on here are like that for you. Do you worry at all about those kinds of comments?

Yeah. Actually, yes I worry about that, especially there is research showing that student evaluations are correlated with the grades earned at the end of the semester. The more students you have with A's and B's, the higher rated you're gonna be in your end of semester evaluations.

One of the ways that I make sure that I am not just giving out A's and B's (well, students don't get grades, they earn them) is that within the university we have a reporting tool that tells us the percent of A's, B's, C's, et cetera given out by every instructor in every course. So, I am actually able to go in every semester and look at, compared to my colleagues, am I on par? Am I giving out more A's and B's? Am I giving out less? Every semester that I've been there, I am right smack in the middle. So, I'm not the easiest professor. I'm not the hardest professor. So, that's in my non-major's class. In the upper-level majors class, all of my students say I'm the hardest professor. But yeah, there are ways to sort of check on that and to make sure that it's not that everybody's happy because they all have A's.

You’ve won several teaching awards. What is it that makes your teaching stand out, do you think?

If I had to say what my particular superpower is as a professor, it would be I'm very approachable to my students. I truly care about my students. Now, that doesn't mean I'm pushed around easily, but it does come through and they can tell that I care about them and I care that they learn. They know that I'm willing to work hard to help overcome whatever they need me to overcome to reach them. My classes are very inclusive. So, I think that that is one area of strength I can see in my own classes that I don't necessarily see in all classes.

How do you portray that? Because obviously, it's probably not even a one-on-one conversation between all 250 students.

You're right. It's hard. My classes are all 250 students, and I teach multiple sections in a day, so I'm seeing a lot of people. I can't have those one-on-one conversations. So, I think the way I get it across is I actually feel it. You have to actually care. Once that's there, I think the ways that it comes across, it can be as early as in my syllabus and on our LMS site. Even the language that I use.

And I encourage my office hours. Almost every class, I mention it. Even things like I tell them, "Hey, I've got five chairs in my office. It's not gonna be weird. You know, you all just come in, hang out. We can have some coffee." I really try to make them feel comfortable and not feel intimidated by me.

Do people come for your office hours?

They do. Not every day, but I often have lines outside my office, and I have five chairs full at any given time, my five student chairs full.

So, it's a group session?

It feels like a little mini classroom. Although, we don't just talk about the material, and I teach multiple classes. So, I might have two students in an upper level majors course and then three students in my intro for non-majors course and we are all kind of chatting. So, sometimes it's about the material and sometimes it turns to other things, you know. That comfort and approachability, I think, also makes them feel comfortable and confident with the material.

Are there any other tips you have for teaching large classes?

Overall, I really think that you need to figure out who you are and play to your strengths. Some people say, "Use humor in your class." I do. My humor is that I can be very silly and ditzy and just kind of poke fun at that, but I'm very bad at sarcasm. If I try to be sarcastic, it wouldn't go over well. Or if I try to be really self-deprecating, it would be really awkward for me and for the students.

Whereas I have a colleague who is the king of sarcasm and his students love that, but if he tried to do my kind of humor, it wouldn't work. I have a colleague who has no sense of humor at all. In fact, I'm not even sure I've ever seen her smile. Her students still love her. If she went into her classroom and tried to make jokes, it would feel awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. So, I think kind of figuring out where your strengths are and what feels really natural for you is important because when you feel comfortable and natural, your students are going to pick up on that and respond.

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