Teaching The Teaching Workshop: Encouraging Participation in Large Lectures

The Teaching Workshop: Encouraging Participation in Large Lectures

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Question: I teach a large lecture class (120-150 people) to undergraduates who have no background in philosophy. When I taught it in the fall, it was very difficult to get students to ask questions/answer questions during the lecture period.  Do you have any advice for how to encourage participation in a class this big (preferably without breaking the students up into small groups)?


Alexandra Bradner:

Bewitching lectures delivered by a gifted philosopher with a sick level of knowledge and a dry sense of humor are what drew most of us to major in philosophy in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with a good old lecture. Calls for its death are premature.

What is dead is the one-sided, canned lecture, in which the professor delivers the same stale slides every semester, built from lecture notes he or she recorded as a graduate school teaching assistant. Teaching nowadays involves more than saying everything you know about Plato into space. You have to think about the particularities, cultural generation, skill level, and attention span of your students. You have to care about them and whether or not they’re learning.

Every fourth lecture, consider changing things up a bit:

Instead of buzzing through your slides, exploring a reading’s context, meaning, and critical reception, spend one class period on the close reading of a single passage. We tend to grossly overestimate our students’ ability to read philosophy’s dense, antiquated, and translated texts. Show your students step-by-step how you yourself attack a central passage: how long it takes you to figure it out, how you break it down, and how you proceed when you get stuck.

Whenever a course reading contains a thought experiment, consider using clickers or polleverywhere.com to do some in-class experimental philosophy. Students love x-phi. Most of them have had statistics and/or psychology, whereas philosophy is brand new. They appreciate the opportunity to show you how well they can analyze data. X-phi is not about polling audiences. X-phi uses subtle shifts in survey instruments to investigate which factors in a thought experiment are the difference-making ones. Give your students Thomson’s violinist and ask them what they would do. Now change the fetus to a family pet, a mass of cells, and a five-year-old daughter, repolling each time. At the end of the experiment, reveal their responses and open the floor for discussion.

Construct your own “jig-saw.” Let’s say you have one 120-student lecture, with six 20-person discussion sections, each one taught by one of three TAs, and you’re studying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Have each discussion section become expert on one concept from the reading (Aristotle’s notion of happiness, activity, the soul, “in accordance with,” “the highest and most compete virtue,” and the Golden Mean, for example). In lecture, break the class into 20, six-person jigsaw groups. Each group should have one student from each discussion section. In the groups, each expert takes a turn teaching his or her concept to the other members of the group, and you and the three TAs visit five jigsaw groups apiece, to ensure that everyone is on task. Have your TAs assess this group work with a quiz or writing assignment in the very next discussion section

Finally, don’t underrate the power of a good Youtube video. By showing a clip from “Mad Max” during the lecture on Hobbes’s State of Nature, the diving board scene from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” during the lecture on the male gaze, or a Deerfield Academy admissions video during the lecture on Rawls’s Difference Principle, you will meet your students where they live, while ensuring that they remember the day’s lesson.

Michelle Saint:

I try to keep this in mind: each student who sits and stares at me silently is doing exactly what they should be doing. If you and I were in that giant crowd, rather than up front, we too would stay silent.

Being quiet in an audience is trained into us. From kindergarten on, we are taught that being conscientious means being quiet and still. That’s what we’re supposed to do, when we’re in a large audience and someone at the front of the room is speaking, right? Be quiet! Sit still! Don’t be disruptive! When all 150 of your students are staring at you, shut mouthed, they are doing exactly what they should be doing. They are behaving exactly as is appropriate for their setting.

You want them to speak when they won’t, but they are not the problem. It’s the room. It’s the shape of the room, the design of the seating, the look of the stage (or stage-like space) where you stand. To encourage participation, you need to disrupt the environment in which you’re teaching. You have to understand yourself working against your physical space.

Once you start conceptualizing your enemy as the room you’re in, it’s easier to brainstorm ways to encourage participation. Here are a few suggestions:

Try asking for participation in a way that acknowledges the triumph that is participating under the circumstances. Rather than asking, “Who can explain P?” try asking something like, “Who here is willing to step on that scary ledge, raise their voice in this giant room, and explain P?”

Move around the room. This can be scary, but it can be worth it. Class looks different, when you’re standing at the back of the room or off to a side.  It looks different both for you and for the student.

Ask students to discuss something while standing up and milling around the room. Give them the challenge of talking to a classmate they don’t know. You can mill around with them, listening in to what they say and picking up tidbits to bring up after everyone returns to their seats.

Ask students to write out answers/questions/etc. on pieces of paper, and then collect those pieces of paper. You can respond to the written material as you would spoken participation.

Be honest with your students. Explain why you think it is important for them to participate, and encourage them to recognize the situational forces leading them to remain silent. Empowered with this knowledge, they are more likely to see participating during class to be a worthwhile challenge.

Additional Resources:

Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.



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