5.2 Large group lecture and seminar teaching (www.adeptt.ac.uk)
I was a teacher in schools for 10 years before becoming a part-time lecturer. My main experience has been groups of 30 or so, with up to 45 in some, so it’s similar to the size of a class in school. I’ve used a lot of strategies in university that I used at school. When I first started I expected the students to be more sophisticated – but although they are in some ways, actually adults learn very similarly to children. You can’t talk at them for an hour and expect them to remember!
My basic approach is to look at the content of the lecture or seminar and think how to break this down to do the minimum amount of talking and the maximum amount of interacting. Sometimes you do have to impart information - stand at the front with slides – but I still try to make it interactive. For example, if we are looking at film genre, I might ask the students how many themes they can think of, not just say “there are six themes”. So I do lots of brainstorming. There are usually some who have the relevant knowledge – they make initial suggestions and I add detail if necessary. The biggest issue is imparting information in a way they’ll remember. The worst way is to talk at them. They may make notes but it’s much better if they go away having had a real learning experience. I also provide hand-outs. I have the basic points and terms on an overhead projector as well so that I don’t have to spell things out, but I say much more than is on the slides – talk around them.
The main aim when I’m working with big groups is to impart information in an interactive way. To help the students understand a concept, I devise an exercise to do in pairs or a small group. I use activities and/or games, using an extremely hands-on approach, so that they’ll understand what I’m talking about, or sometimes just to engage them and make a point. So I’m using fun to make serious points. I always ask for flexible rooms, but if we have to be in a lecture theatre we still manage, I just have a maximum of four in a group then because they may have to sit in a line.
For the more academic aspects, I used to give them a reading to do in advance, but most of them didn’t do it. So now I give readings in sessions, but that can cause problems for people with reading difficulties so I try to shorten the extracts as much as possible and find really accessible stuff about the topic. I will give a more challenging extract to them to take away after the session, when they will understand it.
In many ways, lectures are easier than seminars because you have more groups and can examine more aspects of a topic. With very large groups time is an issue, because the feedback from individual groups would take ages, so you have to make it clear that only a few groups will get to give feedback, or you’ll just pick out a couple of key points from each. Most students will chip in and make suggestions. You always get people who sit at the back – when I break people up into small groups they all have to participate. The best combination is either pairs or groups of 4-5, any bigger than that and some people won’t join in. I tend to group people with additional needs or very shy people with more confident ones. If I’m saying something that’s hard to understand, then I’ll say it more than once in different ways. I make sure that definitions and key terms are in my notes.
There are some advantages to working with large groups. When the students are broken up into sub-groups you can get a very broad overview of topics when they feed back to everyone. When the students have to give a seminar presentation at the end of the semester, again I break them up into groups; otherwise it would take too long.
I don’t try to bring people in during lectures if they don’t speak voluntarily –it can be quite intimidating speaking in large groups. I want people to feel comfortable.
I guess the key message is to give the students lots to do – don’t just rely on giving them information. I have learned the technique of constantly moving, like being an actor “in the round”. You have to say things two or three times but in different ways and demonstrate more than once so that everybody can pick it up.