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Conference on Teaching Large Classes 2016

July 28, 2016 Leave a comment

In preparation for teaching a junior-level undergrad introductory human-computer interaction class with up to 150 people, I attended the Conference on Teaching Large Classes at Virginia Tech. There were over 100 people in attendance, with about half from VT and the rest from other universities. Peter Doolittle served as master of ceremonies, and a huge group of other people worked hard to make it a success. There was a lineup of educators from a wide variety of disciplines who shared approaches that they feel work for large classes.

My main interests were to understand how to connect with the students in meaningful ways that get them to actively practice the techniques that are important in the field of human-computer interaction. This introductory class doesn’t focus on programming but on methods, so if the students aren’t understanding when and how to use the methods, they won’t get it–and that takes practice. In past years I taught this class with 30-40 people, maybe up to 70 or 80, where I could assign in-class activities to teams of 3-4 with some expectation that I would be able to interact with all the groups. With a group of 150, that no longer seemed possible.

The conference made it clear that the notion of “large” is self-defined; it’s put forth as a size at which one feels unable to use familiar methods in teaching the class. That seemed to be a great match for situations like mine, though sometimes it meant that a speaker might be talking about teaching to a large group of 50, or a large group of 400, and the method wouldn’t be relevant to me. It would have been helpful if the breakout talks were somehow labeled with an indication of what size range “large” meant to the speaker or leader.

Martha Olney from UC Berkeley gave the opening keynote. She talked about iClickers (or free mobile phone equivalents) that encourage participation throughout a class period. She also noted that she often has a rapid-fire handful of quizzes early on to get people in their seats and engaged on time. She noted that students are more engaged and there were fewer D and F grades when even just a few quizzes were given each day. She also talked about other electronics in class and admitted she’s gone back and forth on a policy. A survey of the audience revealed that 58% of attendees allow any electronic device to be used in classes, 16% ban mobile phones, 9% ban all electronics.

Much of the conference focused on breakout sessions, where attendees could choose a session that matched their needs and interests. My favorite presentation was by Gary Green from UGA gave a great and engaging talk that pushed the effectiveness of humor and the need to call people out and keep them off balance. One example he gave was a “what’s in the bag” technique, where good answers (or questions) would give someone the opportunity to pull an object from a bag. The first time he did it, the “bag” was his lunch, and the activity arose because people wondered what was in there. He later created a bag of old kid toys, company giveaways, and the like. He also talked about ways to balance low, medium, and high stakes assignments (worth <3%, 3-9%, or 10+% of the total grade, respectively) to maintain people’s commitment and attention levels. He also surveyed students about their preferred means of communication–in order student preferences are texting, before/after class, mobile phone, learning commons, email, office phone, office hours. Audience members were stunned that he gave out his mobile number to large groups of students, but he noted that he peaked out at 6 messages an hour and most could be answered in a single word (“yes”, “no”, “5pm”, “tomorrow”). I’m not sure I’m going to try that last one!

There were tons of other pointers that were provided that need follow-up as I prepare to teach my class. Michelle Soledad talked about online homework resources like chegg, WileyPLUS, and informal forums. Deborah Good and her colleagues presented an online resource for getting students engaged. Mary Marchant and Kim Morgan talked about lessons from CIDER’s big courses workshop, detailing ways to engage people through projects, activities, and other graded activities. One theme that emerged in multiple presentations noted that many interactive techniques don’t “move the bar” in terms of number of As, Bs, or Cs, but they do decrease the number of Ds and Fs—helping the poor or struggling students. I feel certain I’ll be going through the online proposals and additional readings from the web site as my planning efforts continue.

Greg Justice from VT’s Theater and Cinema Department gave the closing keynote. He acted out lots of positive and negative examples of how lessons from theater can be used in large classes. A smattering of examples: Move from back to center-front, or move from left to right to draw attention (it’s the direction we read), but introduce conflict by moving from right to left. 50% of effective communication comes from what you communicate physically, 40% is vocal, and 10% is from the words that are used. Warm up before you “perform”, and have your students do it too. Lean forward if sitting. Get out from behind the podium. Avoid teen speak, where each sentence falls off at the end. Talk from your heart, talk from your passions.

Overall, a worthwhile experience. It was great to see other folks from my department there, including Dwight Barnette and Anamary Leal. More to come on this topic as my preparation for the class moves forward. And perhaps next year I’ll be presenting here!

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