Here were some of the many issues raised in the video-conferencing session held last Friday morning among professors from Concordia and McGill:
Students often come into large classes for the first time and react with dismay, sure that they'll be lost in the crowd, and that they'll have to sit through a dull lecture. Proponents of the small-group approach, of whom there are many, will break such a class up into lively, interactive groups, and vary their teaching style with question periods, joke sessions, visual material or even playing with "toys."
A veteran physics teacher from McGill said that trying small-group teaching was a "huge personal psychological challenge" for him, because "it meant giving up control." He tried it, and succeeded.
However, some students are actively seeking the anonymity of the large class, either because they're insecure, or because they've done the small-group thing before, as far back as elementary school.
One McGill professor said that her advanced law students groan when she introduces small-group activity as an alternative to lectures. "They have to be dragged into it, although they find it rewarding in the end." Another McGill professor said his biology class of 600 students would dissolve into chaos if he tried small groups.
A major problem is the variation in motivation among students. Many students are there because they have to be, and the anonymity of large classes does little to win them over.
Cheating is endemic in large classes, some teachers say, and attitudes vary widely. One professor said it was the students' responsibility, not his. A teaching assistant interviewed on video was deeply troubled by it, and had developed her own repertoire of body language (eye contact, standing near them) to dissuade cheaters.
An accounting professor gives different exams to her same class to deter peeking, but admits she hasn't got the nerve to confront suspected cheaters. A geography professor said students who look around during an exam in her class are out, period.
Arshad Ahmad (Finance) showed a 15-minute video made by a student of interviews with successful teachers of large classes at Concordia.
Sylvia Ruby (Biology) has several effective devices. She puts an exam question on the board, "which gets their attention," and gets students to compare answers. She also leaves a questionnaire near the door with which students can express their likes and dislikes, and ask questions they're too shy to put in class.
Lisa Ostiguy (Leisure Studies) isn't cowed by a sea of undergraduate faces. She puts such variety into her classes that students regularly give her high evaluations. Ted Stathopoulos (Electrical and Computer Engineering) finds that recounting his own early experiences in the field wins his students' sympathetic attention.
Students held captive for hours by the same speaker know how important speaking style can be. Robert Parker (Art History) pauses and repeats information to allow his listeners to process it. Ahmad understands that the language of finance can seem dry to the uninitiated. He also tries not to do all the talking, and chooses his words carefully to provoke thought, not provide ready answers.
To borrow Teaching Large Classes at Concordia: Voices of Experience, produced by the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services, call 848-2495. - BB