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Tips for teaching large lecture classes: Keep moving, dress up, summarize and show you care

"All of us struggle with teaching large lecture courses. Some of us admit that we struggle, and some of us don't," said Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies, in moderating a panel discussion with four other Cornell professors Sept. 10 in Weill Hall on the challenges of lecturing to large groups. "But in the current environment at Cornell, there are going to be a lot more large lecture courses because there are going to be fewer of us," he added.

Speaking to about 60 audience members, each panelist agreed that different strategies work for different professors to engage students on a personal level while still having time to cover course material. Strategies the panelists offered, for example, were not to remain stationary while teaching and to add drama to their lectures by changing the tone and pace of their speech.

Altschuler also suggested that instructors not only be well organized but also build time into lectures for summarization. "The more well-organized you are as a lecturer, the less likely students will ask questions … Students tend to ask questions of incompetent lecturers," he said.

Panelist David Gries, professor of computer science, stressed the importance of letting students know that you care. "You have to let them know that you're in it to help them," he said. Professor Andrea Parrot of policy analysis and management described how she has donned period dress and come to class as such deceased "guest lecturers" as Queen Victoria or Margaret Sanger. "It allows me to bring material alive in a way that I cannot by simply telling stories," she said.

Other panelists said they keep students involved through repeated personal interactions. Isaac Kramnick, professor of government, recommended that lecturers arrive early to class, discuss current events with the students and help them segue from chatting with their friends to being engaged in the course material. "I always try to see myself sitting in my own lecture," he noted. "I know how easily bored I am listening to other people's lectures, and I try to avoid doing that which bores me when I listen to other people."

Altschuler advised looking at syllabi from other classes and having colleagues observe classes regularly rather than just when promotion and tenure are involved. He added that consulting is available from the Center for Teaching Excellence, as well as through colleges and departments; he concluded by warning that "if [professors] are not discussing teaching a lot more … then [they're] not doing [their] jobs."

The presentation, "Addressing the Unique Nature of Teaching Large Lecture Courses: A Solution Focused Forum," was sponsored by Cornell's Center for Teaching Excellence.

Graduate student Jordan Atlas is a science writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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