Going to class


I dropped by a 100 level class with 200 students. In a crowd like that, it is easy to just drop in and watch how a class is conducted. It was a faculty of arts class, but I won’t be more specific than that – I went to see how an instructor interacted with a large class and structured a lecture.

Music was playing as students entered the classroom – it wasn’t important what the music was, but when it stopped, that was a signal that the lecture was going to start. He asked if there were any questions about last week, and then listed the topic and an analogy that he’d used last week. After waiting a few seconds, he proceeded with the lecture.
Five minutes before the end of class, students started to pack up and attention dropped. The instructor, who was talking about how this weeks and next weeks sessions linked, put up a puzzle that was related to next weeks topic. No explanation was given, but the students suddenly paid attention and stopped packing up.

This instructor used some active learning techniques in his 200 person lecture. There were no small group discussions or think-pair-shares, but there were some small moments that reminded me at least that students were expected to think about the topic.

He acknowledged how learners might be interpreting his words “there are some of you who might say…”
He asked a question that related the topic to learner experience, but cautioned “don’t put your hand up in answer.” The purpose of the question was to engage students.

He asked a question “And this is an example of …. what?” – but didn’t answer it. There was an unspoken expectation that you should be able to answer that yourself if you had been paying attention.

He was so comfortable with the technology and his content that he was also able to be aware of his environment. And so when his microphone was scratching and providing feedback to the class, he was aware of that and adjusted it better. One image was returned to time and again, used to explain the different variations on the topic.

The back of the classroom is still a popular place to sit, but the students were evenly spaced out. The first two rows of the centre part of the class were filled.

As I was sitting about three-quarters of the way up the classroom, I could see perhaps one third of the class well enough to gauge their attention. Fewer than 10 had laptops open, and those laptops were open either to the PowerPoint slides the lecturer had posted or sent out or to an empty word file for note-taking. At least two had MSN open at the same time and occasionally sent or read a message.

There was one magazine reader and one novel reader as well. Most students however had their notepaper out, and took notes. In this classroom, the laptop was not quite the distractor that I anticipated.

The reason I did this was to have a more authentic sense of how a classroom can be managed. Depending on the lecturer, time of day, and general subject, I think that I’ll be able to pick up new observations each time. My hope is that this will make me a more empathetic educational developer, and one with concrete suggestions and observations.


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