Teaching the Large Lecture Course: Some Reflections

This fall semester I am teaching a large lecture course on the Western Humanities. I have around 240 students for a 90-minute class that covers caves through cathedrals (basically, 40,000 BCE–1350 CE). We cover history, philosophy, literature, art history, theater history, music history, and more. It is daunting to think of covering so much material in a relatively short period of time.

While I’ve taught large lecture courses before, I’ve never taught a humanities course specifically. Over the course of the semester thus far, I’ve learned a lot (more) about teaching–both what to do and what not to do. I thought it might be useful to post about what has worked and what has not worked in a series of posts.

It was immediately clear to me that we were not going to cover even 1/2 of what the textbook included. Why do these humanities textbooks have so much information? I don’t know, but I feel overwhelmed every time I read a chapter, so imagine what my students feel. What I decided to do at the semester’s start was to focus on 4-5 key events/texts/concepts/artworks each class. You just can’t do it all, so why bother trying.

With my plan in mind, I quickly realized that I also needed to repeat myself a lot and ensure that I paused frequently. With so many students, it is inevitable to have many who are non-native English speakers or who just don’t write everything down at lighting speed.

I also decided to include as little text as possible on the screen. Some of my students don’t particularly like this strategy, but it is effective at getting students to listen to me rather than scribbling down what’s on the screen only.

Use visuals as much as possible. Avoid bullet points (altogether if you are willing). I can’t stress this enough. Even if you are talking about a concept for which there is no specific image, find something. Talking about what differentiates Jews and Christians during early Christianity? Throw up an image of an apple and an orange. Reflecting on Achilles’ rage in the Iliad? Find something–a painting, a photograph, a meme–that shows rage. While I’m an art historian and inherently cringe at the idea of illustrating ideas with images, for a class like this it works. It keeps them focused on the screen and reinforces concepts. Plus, it is SO BORING to look at a black screen with white text over and over again.

Break every 20-35 minutes. I highly recommend inserting a slide into your presentation that signals to students that you will have a mini break (even if it is 1 minute). I use cat photos accompanied by a duck quack. It wakes them up and signals to them that we are pausing. I then ask them a series of recap questions, do an in-class poll, reflect on a contemporary event that relates to course material, or tell them a joke. I’ve also done some crowd-sourced exam writing, which entails some students writing a multiple-choice question, others a fill-in-the-blank, and others a true/false question. It’s a great way to pause, and it helps me see what students find to be most important. Plus, it helps me to produce an exam.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for future posts about activities, as well as what has NOT worked (at all!).

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