Tag Archives: large classes

A joyful noise

In my last post I discussed my decision to teach 80 students (now 77) without lecturing. I’ve been wondering how it is going until today.

When I walked into class this morning there were already 20-25 students in the room and instead of sitting there staring straight ahead or checking their phones for new text messages, they were engaged in animated conversations, both about the subject of the course and about live in general.

As more and more students filtered in the noise level rose and rose. At the moment I should have been starting class there were so many conversations going on that I found it difficult to interrupt. It was just plain loud in my room.

That we have reached this level of camaraderie in only the fourth full week of the semester augurs well for the group work the students will need to do later in the semester.

For now I am just basking in the joy of their noise.

Can you teach 80 students without lecturing?

This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate course on the history of human trafficking (20th/21st centuries). When I planned the course I thought I would probably get between 35-45 students. Working from that assumption, I structured the course in such a way that there would be no lecturing the entire semester.

I have 80 students.

To my surprise and pleasure, it turns out that the history of human trafficking is a subject that really energized George Mason students — I could have had 90 students if my room had been large enough. That’s the good news. The bad news — it seemed — was that I was going to have to junk the syllabus I wrote during the early part of the summer in favor of a course that was heavily lecture. After all, how else can you teach to 80 students in a history class?

Because I am still waiting for someone to show me that study demonstrating that lecturing is an effective form of teaching (if student learning is the goal of teaching), I decided to just jump off the end of the dock and teach 80 students the same way I was planning to teach half that number.┬áIt’s still early days in the semester, but so far the results seem pretty good.

You can read the entire syllabus if you visit the class website, but for the purpose of thinking about how one might teach 80 students without lecturing, you need to know that one of my primary learning goals (in addition to helping students acquire a more sophisticated knowledge of the history of human trafficking) was to teach them how to ask questions. It’s been my observation over the years that the American educational system is very good at teaching our students how to answer questions, but not very good at teaching them how to ask the kinds of questions we want them to ask.

So, the entire first half of the course is structured around questions that the students themselves generate. Each Thursday we break into groups and discuss the questions that need to be answered next week for us to move toward our goals in the course. Between Thursday and Tuesday, the students go to the books I’ve assigned and see if they can find answers to the questions they (not I) decided needed to be answered. Then on Tuesday, we reconvene, they work in groups to see what they’ve come up individually, then report out. And so on for the rest of the first half of the term.

It has been gratifying thus far to see how the questions they are asking are moving from very large and difficult to get hold of to more and more focused with each passing week. I have also been pleased with the results from my decision to tell them that the books I assigned were resources where they should begin their research, rather than saying “Next week we’ll discuss Misha Glenny’s McMafia. Be sure to be ready to discuss it in class on Tuesday.”

Thus far I’ve found that the students are really learning to mine the books for answers to their questions — a skill we also want them to develop.

Are all the students in the class fully engaged? Of course not. There are certainly some who are hiding, sitting quietly, not writing for the blog, etc. But that would be true if I stood at the front of the room and lectured at them, so I’m not sure whether my approach is working for more or fewer students. I suspect that the answer is “more,” but it’s still early days.