“A TEST CASE”
When I started teaching 17 years ago at Mount Royal College, my class size was pegged at 20 students. At Florida State University, my class size did not change. When I first started at the U of C, my classes were capped at 80 students, now my introductory course is being capped at 240 students. (Three sections of 80 students). It is inevitable another section will be added this fall, and I will welcome the change as another challenge.
These are challenging times in a changing world. We cannot expect to be unaffected, as we see cutbacks and downsizing in the corporate world, health care and education. I hope to share some solutions to preserve the “quality” of education even though the “quantity” of students continues to grow. Indeed, I teach at the undergraduate level, which makes a huge difference, but perhaps there will be a nugget of inspiration or an idea that may help a fellow colleague cope with increasing class sizes.
The decision to increase student enrollment for COMS 201 in the fall of 2001 at the University Of Calgary was, I believe, an economic one. When I first walked into MFH 162 I was terrified of facing a large class. It represented a two story pedagogical pit, with myself, standing behind a small podium, supposedly all knowing, with the belief that this knowledge would emanate up through a two-tiered lecture hall to new students who allegedly knew nothing. How presumptuous! I was determined not to let the environment control the learning experience.
Instead of thinking how I anxious I felt, I sat down in various seats throughout the lecture hall and tried to experience the lecture hall from the student’s point of view. It was a turning point. Since then I have endeavored to make COMS 201 an Introduction to Communication Studies a memorable, personal, and educational milestone for the first time student entering the U of C. After all, “You never have a second chance to make a first impression” (author unknown).
I wanted people to be excited about the Faculty of Communication and Culture. I did not want them to feel that they were just a number, in a sea of unknown faces. So here are some strategies I use.
In a pedagogical context Ernest Bormann discovered the degree of group consciousness and solidarity can be linked to fantasies expressed in the form of jokes, stories and metaphors. So that’s what I embarked on.
Warm up: (Oprah does it!) I am always 15 minutes early for class for a ten-minute warm up. I greet students, sitting down in the empty seat next to them, drinking coffee with them, asking questions about their life, sports, and career aspirations.
I know their names because they all make nametags. I cannot possibly memorize all of their names, but I get to know them through chats before class, in my office or via email. I can at least refer to them by name because of their name card. It’s good management practice and something I learned from the Faculty of Business eight years ago.
Some colleagues may shudder, but I ask everyone to use my first name. I start with “Good morning class. Welcome to COMS 201. My name is Diane and what is your name?” I am a student, like them, still learning. My rhetorical vision is continually reinforced through personal and mass media images. Our classroom is an egalitarian learning field, where we all contribute to the success of the class. We symbolically converge to build a sense of community, and assume a joint venture in broadening our intellectual horizons by drawing closer through the use of “we, us and ours”. We raise that to a social vision of academic inquiry. I use a hand held mike and go into the amphitheater, asking questions, talking to different individuals. Still part of warm up phase.
I start every lecture with a joke. I ask students to send me jokes and when their joke fits a topic we will be covering for the day, it appears up on the overhead. They are so impressed! It makes a connection with the individual student and the class as a whole. It also helps to filter out the noise for students who arrive late. It is also a strong message that lecture is about to begin. We have very little talking in our classes. Everyone comes to participate.
I do not write on the blackboard. I have the students use the blackboard for opinions, definitions, and beliefs. The population of 240 is an excellent base for data collection. Some of the lectures center around this collected data, and we incorporate the results to use as the phenomena under investigation, to highlight a particular theory.
In other cases I use experiments to highlight a theory. I also use a lot of multi-media. We are all impatient with our PC’s, VCRs, microwaves and remotes. So are students. I change format every 5-ten minutes.
· We use overheads
· We watch film clips to capture human behavior to be used as the phenomena under investigation.
· We deconstruct the lyrics of pop, country western and hiphop bands.
· We cruise the Internet for sites, both academic and popular to enhance the learning environment.
· We access all the lectures on the Internet. No one has to spend any time taking notes. Everyone is present to learn and participate. (My web page counter has now topped the 15,000 hit mark. Yet people still come to lecture because they enjoy the hour, and feel it is worth their time because they have learned something new).
· We use a lot of self-disclosure, myself included. Even if a student never talks to me, they feel they know me because I reveal a lot about myself. It breaks down the academic barrier. It makes them comfortable and grateful and can create an environment of ‘intimacy’.
· I am always available for questions, problems etc.
· We play “Who wants to be an “A” student, at the end of class using “Who wants to be a Millionaire” format. It makes for a neat closure to the class. No one is in a hurry to leave because we review multiple questions for upcoming exams. Plus everyone wants to be an “A” student!
· We use a template for the midterm papers and go over the template in every lecture.
· We have TA’s to mark the papers
· I review every Universal Student Ratings of Instruction form carefully taking all criticisms very seriously to improve the class.
My golden Rule is to put myself in the student’s position. To look at the context of their learning environment and experience from their perspective and help them to become interested in their studies and academia through “participaction”. I try to help them realize their dreams, and pursue their careers, as a whole and individually.
Our commitment is to continually examine the relationships inherent in all communication. There is no safe harbor in which researchers and teachers can avoid the power or economic structure (Griffin, 2001). Good scholarship can be interpretive, and we should embrace old material and pedagogy in a new way, one that can capture the imagination of a first year or graduate student. We can be artist, analyst, and edutainer (my word for combining education with entertainment), regardless of class size.
Not a tome, but indeed a lengthy rebuttal on class size. I would enjoy any feedback or welcome anyone to sit in one of my classes.