Large class, small community

Yesterday I was a presenter for the "Lightning Talk" session at the 2018 CMU Teaching & Learning Summit. The format was akin to 'speed dating': each presenter was seated at a table, and Summit participants went to each table for 10 minutes. The talk itself was just 5 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of discussion. Participants then switched to another table; there were a total of 4 of these mini-sessions.

The title of my talk was, "Making a large lecture-style class feel like a small community", and my goal was to share specific strategies that I use. In this post I provide an elaborated version of my talk, but also reflect a bit on some of the questions that came up through the discussion.


The class I teach, Nature of Language, is a large class with about 100 students. It meets twice a week for lecture, and once a week for recitation, in groups of at most 20. It is a required course for the linguistics major, and part of the philosophy major, but is also used as a gen. ed. distribution requirement, so the student body is quite heterogeneous; for example, about half of my students are in their 3rd or 4th year.

The Problem

Large lecture style classes often feel impersonal, both for the instructor and the students. There are several reasons why I am concerned about a class feeling impersonal:

1. Students may disengage with the material

2. If students are struggling with the material or with something else in life, they are not as likely to seek help.

3. If I need to broach sensitive topics, they will not be received in good faith. Further, if I make mistakes, students may not feel as though they can approach me.

The last two amount to trust. In a small classroom setting, there are several opportunities for instructor and students to get to know each other, at least a little bit, over the course of many small interactions, and this create some measure of trust and mutual respect. In large classes held in lecture-hall, it is too easy to slip into a dynamic where the instructor and students are essentially foreign to each other, and by the end of the semester, know each other no more than they did on the first day.

The goals

The goal to make a "large lecture-style class feel like a small community" could be interpreted in several ways. I have thus far conceived of it as an effort to restore a level of communication, engagement, and trust between the instructor and students.

This isn't the only way to think about what it means to create a community. In fact, I just got an email from a friend of mine, who wrote, "...I still don’t get the impression that the students know anyone else in the class other than the 5 people who sit near them.'' This made me think that my notion of establishing something of a small-class feel is not well characterized by the term "community", since most of my strategies are devoted to the instructor-student relationship, and not the student-student relationship. So this is something for me to think about in the future: How can I increase student-to-student interactions, so that I can properly establish some sense of community?

Coming back to my (limited) notion of community, my thinking is that in order for someone to feel like they're a part of a community, they need to (1) be a part of communal experiences; (2) feel like their individuality is respected and their voice is heard. These two components of what it means to create the feeling of being in a small community shape the strategies that I use. So my goals are:

1. Engage with the student as an individual

2. Create shared experiences

In what follows, I share the strategies that I use. I don't think this is an exhaustive list, nor do I think that any individual strategy is either necessary or sufficient. Also I think that instructors have to do what comes naturally to them. So the strategies should be seen instead as inspiration for what others could do that would serve the same purpose.

Learning student names

In a previous post I discussed how and why I learn the names of (nearly) all of my students in my large, lecture style class. The point I want to stress is that for me the goal is not so much learning all their names at the beginning and then using them flawlessly through the semester. If that were my metric, I'd fail. Instead my goal is to engage with the student as an individual, and so I learn their names throughout the semester, as I address in the post on student names. But to summarize, here are the specific strategies I use to learn their names:

1. Have students tell me their name every time they speak; once I know their name, call on them by name.

2. Repeat every student comment / question with the student's name, as in, "Martin observed that..." or "Vivian wants to know..."

3. Use the photo roster after class, to help solidify names that came up in class that day.

This method leads to a lot of failure: I mispronounce them, I forget them, I confuse them, etc. So part of this strategy requires being okay with failure, taking it in stride, maybe laughing it off, etc. The message that I stressed to the Summit participants was that this failure is okay: students appreciate the effort, and do not expect or need me to always remember their names, and they do not hold my failure against me.

This is important because a lot of people feel that since they'll probably fail at learning names anyway, they're not even going to try. I think it's worth trying, even knowing that failure is certain.

One of the participants asked me how I combat the likely scenario that I might simply frequently miss a few students. I use a stack of index cards (with their names in IPA, but that's because this is a linguistics course!) to cold-call people randomly, and I make sure to make my way through the stack by the end of the semester. Because for some people cold-calling is their worst nightmare, I explicitly tell students that if they do not wish to respond, they can simply pass, and this seems to alleviate the stress of cold-calling.

Creating shared experiences during lecture

Repeating student names when they ask a question or make a comment is one way of ensuring that you create a shared experience during lecture. Not doing that can lead to "private Q&As" between students and the instructor, which exclude many of the students. I also make sure to interpret a question that may be advanced or use a lot of specialized terminology if I don't think the class has a robust understanding of those concepts.

Another method is to take advantage of the small class setting that students get during recitation, and refer back to recitation activities in lecture. In order for this to be successful, all TAs must carry out the same section plan, so that means that I'm responsible for creating all section activities. Although it's more work than letting TAs design activities to cover specific content themselves, there are independent reasons for doing this (namely that it ensures uniformity across sections) and so I think the benefits outweigh the cons.

Being appropriately personal

When it’s appropriate and relevant, I relate course content to some experience I’ve had. That’s not to centre the discussion on me, but rather to balance out the playing field. For example, I might ask students to reflect on what it was like speaking their native language and/or dialect, and how that dialect is received by people in their community and in other communities; I think it’s only fair to lead and to share my own experiences. (And that also means explicitly recognizing my privilege (e.g., my non-rural Canadian accent isn't stigmatized) and not trying to paint myself as someone who has experienced (linguistic) discrimination that I haven't. ) So I’m not divulging inappropriate personal details, but I need to be willing to expose a little bit of myself, rather than only use impersonal examples from the text.

One issue to keep in mind, that is perhaps most relevant for humanities courses, is that when asking students to contribute their experiences, it’s important to remember the power-imbalance that exists between instructor and student. So while I will sometimes cold-call students for content that is strictly linguistics-based, I do not ever call on individuals to share anything that could be remotely personal. Furthermore, I try to make sure that no one feels they have to be a spokesperson for their entire group, by only asking for responses from the class as a whole, and not targetting people to contribute anything that may be remotely personal. This is an issue that comes up especially when we discuss different dialects. Asking the class for volunteers of, say, Appalachian English vs. Black English creates a very different pressure for the students, as I don't have very many Black students in my class.

One suggestion that came up in the context of this at the Summit was the possibility of soliciting volunteers in advance. Namely, asking the entire class to tell me which dialects they are familiar with, and whether they'd be comfortable participating in class when such examples come up. I haven't tried this, and will have to think on how to implement it.

In courses where it might not be so obvious what it means to be "appropriately personal", consider other ways to relate to the students' perspective. That doesn't mean pathetic attempts at cultural references you don't really get, but rather remembering what it was like when you were learning this material. So maybe saying something like, "The following proof gave me a lot of trouble when I was learning it, so don't worry if you find it difficult / I've tried to improve on how I was taught it / it's probably best to read this again tomorrow, etc" In other words, putting your personal experience with the material can help break down the inherent barrier of you being the expert. And if all of it was easy for you, but it's not easy for your students, then something like, "Students seem to have trouble with it, and I think it's because I might not be explaining something well. So please feel free to interrupt with questions as I go along, because that will help me teach this material better."

The result

I don't have comparative data, but I think that my approach has several benefits. First, the students in my class are fairly engaged, and because of that, their learning improves. As they get more and more comfortable in the class, you can see them take more risks in asking questions, or offering answers to questions that I pose. It makes for a very nice dynamic, and increased student engagement has been shown to help with learning.

There’s a bit of a selfish reason too: teaching is more fun. I think this is true for the students too – when I walk in, many of them smile and wave, and say hello – they actually initiate eye contact! This even extends to beyond the classroom, so that the university campus feels more like a community that transcends our roles here.

The tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue have shown how important community is, and I felt that in my class. I decided to make a fairly lengthy statement to my class on the Monday after the shooting, and I think that some of the groundwork laid helped them to take it in good faith. Not only that, but it was easier for me. Commenting on such emotionally fraught topics is always difficult, but can feel particularly vulnerable in front of so many faces. I think that knowing a large proportion of my students, even just the little bit that I do, made that easier. And the nicest thing happened the next day: I was waiting for a tea beside one of my students, when he asked me if I was doing okay and was feeling better. I really appreciated that. Not everybody will feel comfortable establishing the rapport that I aim to establish, and they may not want to, for various legitimate reasons. But I have found that treating students as individuals and trying to create a small-class feel in a large lecture hall has benefits to student engagement and learning, and establishes some measure of trust and respect between me and my students.

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