Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Tips for lecturing large classes of first year students

Keith Godfrey
Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering
The University of Western Australia
Despite advances in interactive learning, the lecture theatre is still used as the primary teaching environment for the majority of courses. The low cost of this approach, with one staff member for several hundred students, will ensure its continued use in the future. It is important that academic staff have good lecturing skills.

First year classes are challenging because the class sizes are large, the student expectations are high and their demands are greater than in later years. Good lecturing in first year requires thoughtful planning, thorough preparation, clear presentation and strict control. The standards and habits imparted to students in first year will be with them throughout their course.

This paper shares problems and solutions which have moulded the author's lecturing style and lists suggestions which other academics may be able to use in their lectures. An example is given for a particular course that is hard to teach. Although students are not required to pass this course and the material is relatively abstract, student interest has been rekindled and the pass rate has risen to a level comparable with other units.


Introduction and motivation

Lecturing is a well-established method of teaching and there are several good educational reasons for using lectures as part of the overall instruction of each class. Besides providing organisation, covering all main ideas and ensuring that difficult concepts are explained, the lectures can also convey the lecturer's enthusiasm for the subject and motivate students to learn [1, 2].

The motivation for this work came from one particular unit at The University of WA which became difficult to teach in 1994 due to a change in faculty regulations. Until then, engineering students of all types had a common first year. In 1994 the intake was split, with the students majoring in electrical, electronic or information technology separated from those in civil, mechanical or environmental engineering. A course in electrical fundamentals which had been taught by the author for 4 years to all 500 students was now given only to the latter group of 260. The change in the student intake made a tremendous difference to their performance. In 1993 the course had run smoothly. In 1994 the civil, mechanical and environmental group was less diligent, played up in class and performed poorly in the examination. This behavioural change prompted a careful review of the teaching and led to successive improvements in later years. The resulting observations and suggestions are presented here.

It must be stressed that the suggestions and opinions expressed have been developed by the author as a result of his own personal experiences in teaching. The author is an engineer who has not received formal instruction in lecturing or other forms of teaching. The content of this paper is offered in good faith to other academics but does not necessarily represent the views of the Department or University.

Developing positive student attitudes

The proverb "you can lead a horse to water but not make him drink" is well applied to teaching. If our students are to learn from our courses, we must first ensure that they want to and are prepared to. Their progress will depend on their motivation. It is useful to identify any factors which may give students a negative attitude towards a course. This section describes how this was done in the electrical fundamentals unit.

After the engineering regulations changed in 1994, three factors were identified that caused a negative attitude to the electrical fundamentals unit:

With these factors combined, it was understandable that they were not enthusiastic about electrical fundamentals. Students are people. They want to see tangible benefits from their efforts. The first step in improving the course was to address these underlying issues.

The engineering regulations could not be changed so the immediate solution was to discuss the issues openly in class. In the first lecture, students are now told exactly why they are doing this unit, and how it relates to the major course of study they have chosen. The relationship between this unit and their other subjects is reinforced wherever possible throughout the semester. Even the tutorial sheets have been modified so that each shows its aims clearly at the top. The abstractness of the subject material has also been discussed openly and put in context of their overall course.

The third issue was more difficult. Why should students put effort into a subject that they don't have to pass? This was overcome by discussing it openly in class. Students are told truthfully that they do not have to pass the course and they can instead go down to the tavern. They are told the way their overall mark is calculated and how their performance in this unit contributes to that mark. Armed with this information, they can make their own choices whether to attend lectures, submit assignments and sit the examination. Initially this approach was expected to discourage troublemakers from attending lectures but another interesting change occurred. The attendance at lectures increased. It seems that telling students that they can leave is more effective at retaining them than telling them that they should stay.

The message is to proactively confront problems that affect student attitude. Do not ignore regulations or other external issues that can impinge on your good teaching. Even when the issues themselves seem insuperable, it may be possible to modify student attitudes by helping them appreciate the situation too. Identify the factors and sort them out openly. You will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Course organisation

This section is written particularly for lecturers of first year students. Research has shown that large class sizes are not necessarily detrimental to education. It is the quality of the instructor that has the greater effect [3]. When students arrive at university for the first time, they are faced with an environment completely different to that of high school. Instead of having their course strictly controlled and their work closely monitored, they are given a timetable with a few deadlines, then left to set their own work schedules. For the first time they have the choice of whether to attend lectures and whether to study. Whilst many first year students adjust quickly to their new freedom, it is prudent for academics to impose sufficient exercises and checks for the stragglers to keep in line.

The first year lecturer is responsible for setting the assessment and instructing the tutors accordingly. It is helpful to give students feedback on their progress as early as possible in the course. This can be in the form of assignments, small tests or laboratory assessments. In all cases the work is marked with comments and returned to the students. With large classes there will be several people doing the marking and it is essential that all of them mark in similar ways so that the students receive uniform assessment. The lecturer's job becomes that of a manager, to ensure that staff meet met beforehand, develop an agreed system of marking, then compare notes after marking. With several staff working on a unit, the lecturer has to be especially careful to keep them fully informed on what is happening in lectures - more informed than the students. Prepare a lecture schedule and stick to it. Arrange for tutors to receive complimentary copies of all course text books.

The first lecture is important because everyone will be there and they will make an unconscious judgement of you and the way you teach. Make sure you give students good reason to attend. Explain how your course is relevant to their degree. Outline the topics and the purposes of lectures, tutorials and laboratories. Don't assume that students know these, especially if they are in first year. Describe the standards of work expected in assignments and laboratories. State whether attendance is required and the methods of assessment. Give an overview of university facilities such as the secondhand book exchange. Introduce yourself. Who are you? Why are you there? What qualifications do you have? Do you like the subject you are teaching? Do you have a life besides lecturing? By showing the type of person you are, the students will be more comfortable to approach you later in the course.

The first step before giving each lecture is to prepare your material. Besides having to know more about the subject than the people you are teaching, you must also present it in a way that they can grasp. Good organisation will help you eliminate less relevant material so that you can cover important points more thoroughly.

Presentation techniques

Lecturing is a form of public speaking and academics are not generally taught how speak. Learning to speak takes time, practice and attention to mistakes. This section lists methods which work.

Grab student attention at each main point. It is hard to sustain everyone's concentration for a whole lecture, so choose a few places deliberately to rally everyone's interest. One technique is to pause for a few seconds then give a sentence like "This formula is important!" or "I want you to remember this!" The few seconds of silence before you begin will highlight your statement and the students will sit up alert. The pause also helps identify any students who are talking, as your silence will interrupt their conversation. In all there will be more pairs of eyes looking straight at you and ears listening to whatever you say next.

Be clear in everything you say. A good memory aid is to number or count items. For example if you want to students to remember that cheese is soft, made of milk and tastes good, you could say: "There are three things I want you to remember about cheese. It is soft. It is made of milk. And it tastes good." This approach provides a clear structure which an unassuming sentence in a book does not.

Maintain eye contact with your class. This shows the students that you are confident in your work and comfortable looking at them. It also gives you a chance to judge their level of attention so you can adjust your pace and decide when to rally attention. When students are writing, pause for a while and look around the class. This is more productive than rattling off more information that they cannot absorb at the same time. By watching the class you will gain a lot of feedback about how they are working. Make sure you look around the whole class - it's tempting to fixate on the few students who always meet your glances.

Watch for repetitive habits while you lecture. A very common example to take a step or two forward to the overhead projector, then a couple of steps back while talking, then a couple of steps forwards again and so forth. Your class can give you feedback but if you are uncomfortable about asking them, have a lecture videotaped and take a look at yourself the way your class sees you.

Lecture aids

There are usually several types of aid available: computer projectors, overhead projectors, slide projectors and whiteboards. In deciding which type or types to use, consider how you will be able to see the class when using each aid. It is best if you can face the class at all times so that they can hear you and so that you can see them. Overhead projectors are good because you can see the class and look at your presentation at the same time without turning your body. If you use an overhead projector, you can either prepare your slides in advance or write during the lecture. Preparing the slides in advance has the advantage that they are accurate and thorough but you run the risk of presenting them too quickly. Interspersing your presentation with a bit of handwriting will ensure that you set a fair pace for the students, as your writing speed will be similar to theirs.

Computer demonstrations can be impressive but are difficult to manage. Computer projectors are not as bright as overheads and the cabling interfaces may be complicated. Make sure you have alternative methods of presentation if your computer doesn't work, as a clumsy lecture can do a lot of harm. Remember that if you have developed a truly good computer demonstration you could make it available to students on disk or via the internet instead of showing it to them in your lectures.

A microphone is helpful in projecting your voice to large groups. Besides ensuring that everyone can hear you, it also helps you relax your voice and therefore be more pleasing to hear. Take some time to play with a microphone prior to a lecture and hear how the sound changes as you move it towards your mouth or attach it to your clothes. Each microphone is different so a short experiment will help you determine its optimal positions. Be careful when setting the volume level because the speakers may not project into the podium as well as they do around the seats. It is useful to ask the class for feedback on the volume until you are used to judging the sound you can hear.

Whatever equipment you use, make sure you know how to work it properly. Most overhead projectors have a second lamp in case the first one blows. If you have learned how to switch the bulbs, your smooth professional presentation can continue uninterrupted.

Discipline

For discipline is to be effective, it must be present in all aspects of the course: the lecture environment, the tutorial environment and the processing of assessments. In the lecture theatre, the lecturer should be in charge. It does not matter how many students are in the room or what they would rather be doing. They have come to learn. If the lecturer teaches professionally, the students will shut up and listen.

At the very first lecture, define the standards of behaviour expected and what they can expect from you. Explain when the lectures will start and how long you will speak for. State that you want to be the only one talking but you welcome questions. Explain whether you would prefer people to put up their hand or just call out, and what they should do if they put up their hand and you don't see them. Give them some advice on how to deal with people around them talking, such as: "If someone is bothering you, tell them to shut up. And if they don't, tell me and I will deal with them."

Punctuality is essential, especially with large groups. A lecturer should arrive ahead of the scheduled time to set up the lecture aids and be present when the majority of the class arrives. What happens if students arrive late? One or two may be okay, but a larger group should be tackled so that the problem does not recur in later lectures. An astute lecturer will be aware when students are late due to a test or an assignment deadline imposed by other courses but this should not impinge on other lectures. One solution is to ask the class if they would like to start each lecture at 5 minutes past the hour. Invariably they will support you in starting sharp on the hour.

Punctuality also applies to deadlines for assignments. There is no point in setting a deadline unless it is to be observed, regardless of when the staff intend to mark the assignment. Students will soon decide whether to pay attention to the deadlines. When a deadline is set, it should specify a date, a time and a location, consistent with the opening times of the venue. It should be enforced to the minute. Students can be given a clear but fair penalty for being late.

There will be times when students misbehave in lectures, or simply behave in a way that is inconsistent with your intended teaching environment. When this happens it must be addressed immediately. It is helpful to have a repertoire of responses prepared to deal with these situations. If two people are talking, you can embarrass them the first time, then throw them out if they persist. Usually a short sharp question like "Have you got a problem?" will be enough but be prepared to answer genuinely if they do have a question. Another approach to pause silently and stare at them. If they are the only people talking your silence and glare will attract everyone's attention to them. When they realise they are being watched you can ask: "Are you finished now?" or be sarcastic with: "You have been talking for a long time. Sorry that I keep interrupting you. Would you like to go somewhere else where my voice won't disturb you?" If they persist, throw them out and refuse to continue until they have gone. You will only have to do this once for a warning in future to be sufficient.

If you have the misfortune of a paper aeroplane or other object being thrown in class, deal with it forcefully. Do not treat it as an amusing joke because that encourages it to recur. Even if you are not particularly bothered you should remind the class that you are in charge. Stand your ground. Insist that the perpetrator picks up the object and leaves the room before you will resume lecturing.

There is a common thread to all the suggestions in this section. Be strict on discipline. Do not give any leeway to people who are misbehaving or not taking your lecturing seriously. As lecturer you are in charge. Throw your weight around and your class will have respect for you.

Conclusions

The main points to remember from this paper are: These techniques have combined to improve the electrical fundamentals course so that the civil, mechanical and environmental students are once again achieving results similar to their other units and better than the students in the common engineering first year did.

References

  1. Handbook for Teaching Assistants -- Lecturing (1997). Center for Teaching, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA.

  2. Brown, G. and Atkins, M. (1989). Effective Teaching in Higher Education. Routledge.

  3. Badgett, S., Johnson, R. and Nicholson, S. (1992). Assessing the Lower Division Experience: Surveys of Student and Faculty Opinion. Instructional Consultation, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Please cite as: Godfrey, K. (1998). Tips for lecturing large classes of first year students. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 115-119. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/godfrey.html


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