Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 5. lecturing in front of a large classroom
December 2018 (perspective of an assistant professor)
Now that your course is all set up, let's actually get down to some teaching. This article is all about the logistics of large-course lecturing; see recommended reading for actual pedagogical techniques. Lecturing in front a large classroom of hundreds of students feels very different than giving a research talk, since your audience here is much bigger and more diverse. In a research talk, everyone has some expertise in your field and is there (mostly!) because they want to be; in a classroom, that's often not the case. You must adapt accordingly.
Show up early
Make it a habit to show up to the lecture hall early if possible. (This is not always possible if you're running from a meeting elsewhere on campus right before your class time.) Doing so will give you enough time to set up your laptop and check to make sure everything is working properly at the podium. I also like arriving early since I can avoid the rush hour traffic of tons of students walking, biking, skateboarding, and scootering around frantically in the 10 minutes between class periods.
Also, if you're working off-campus, don't plan on arriving to campus right before your lecture time. If your ride gets delayed due to traffic or you have trouble finding parking, then you'll be late. I always try to plan some (less critical) meetings right before my lecture times to ensure that I'm already on campus well ahead of the times when I teach.
Finally, have at least one TA be present at all lectures, so you can call them in case you're running late or need to cancel class last-minute, and they can inform the students.
Start and end
Start strong: The classroom will be super loud at the start of the class period as students shuffle in and talk amongst themselves. You need to mark a strong start to the class period by announcing loudly something like, “Let's get started! Today we're going to cover ...” Use your microphone to the fullest. (If there's no microphone in the classroom, make sure you arrange to get one!) You'll find that even when you start talking with the mic, the classroom might still be loud as students continue to talk to one another. Just keep lecturing and everyone will eventually quiet down after 30 seconds or so. If you must, you can explicitly tell students to quiet down so that their classmates can hear better.
End on time: Always keep an eye on the clock so you can end on time, or a minute earlier. Never go over time. Never go over time. Students will (rightly!) get impatient and start shuffling out of the classroom as the end of the period approaches, since they may need to run across campus to get to another class. If you can't cover everything you planned for, stop your lecture on time and cover the remaining material later. Never go over time!
Pauses and questions
Pause periodically throughout your lecture after each section to ask questions or to check whether students have any questions. If you never pause, then students will just be listening to the professor talk non-stop for an hour.
Hold each pause for much longer than you feel comfortable, up to 15 seconds. Even if nobody raises their hands to answer, just keep silent and wait. Someone will eventually raise their hand.
On the other hand (ha!), if you get a lot of hands raised when you ask questions, make sure to call on students sitting in different parts of the room. When I first started teaching, I'd fixate on a specific part of the room and get tunnel vision, not realizing I had been ignoring other parts entirely. Also, try to vary what kinds of students you call on; for instance, don't just call on the few eager students in the front row who raise their hands for every question.
Whenever students speak up in class, always clearly repeat what they said in your own words. Doing so both acknowledges the validity of what they just said, and also allows the rest of the class to hear it because you're the only one wearing a microphone. (This is even more critical if you're recording a lecture video since only your microphone's audio will be recorded.)
You may have heard of flipped classroom techniques or other interactive modes of teaching. While research shows that these methods can be highly effective if done well, in practice they're really hard to do well in a large classroom, especially if you're new to teaching. I recommend sticking with traditional lecturing at first and then only start experimenting with those approaches once you've gotten more comfortable in the classroom.
Microphone setup: Learn to set your mic levels so that you're clearly audible in the back of the large classroom, but not so loud that it hurts students' ears. Have a TA sit in the back of the room to check for sound levels. If your mic is set to be too sensitive, then you might start mumbling softly because you don't want to risk sounding too loud. That will just make you sound muffled. Also, find a good place to pin the mic onto your clothes so that it doesn't make excess noise if you move around throughout lecture.
Project your voice: Even with a microphone, you should still project your voice and enunciate more clearly than if you're talking one-on-one with somebody. This is because in a large classroom, nobody can see your face clearly, so you need to use your voice to carry your enthusiasm for the subject matter. If you just speak in a normal tone of voice, that will come off as you sounding bored. Crank up your vocal enthusiasm to a much higher level than you feel comfortable doing in real life; it might feel a bit silly, but your students will appreciate your energy.
Equipment bag: Bring a small bag of equipment with you to class, in addition to your laptop. My bag contains a small laptop charger, wires to connect to projectors (I recommend one with multiple outputs like VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, etc.), a presentation clicker (I always pack two Kensingtons), extra batteries for your clicker, and even extra batteries for the wireless mic in the classroom (yes!). I've had batteries die on me in the middle of lecture, and my spares saved the day. Pack everything back into your bag after class so you don't leave anything in the classroom.
No internet: Assume that you will have no internet in the classroom. Can you still deliver your lecture without internet access? If you need to do live demos that require the internet, do you have a backup plan if the wi-fi goes down in the room?
TA support: Always have at least 1 TA come to every lecture and sit in the front so that they can be ready to take care of logistics if something goes wrong in class. For instance, if the projector fails or a vital connector cable is missing (this has all happened!), your TA can try to get it working while you improvise, or call the emergency hotline to see if a maintenance person can come fix it.
Lecture slides: Don't spend a ton of time perfecting your slides; tweaking slides for every lecture can be a tremendous time sink, especially when you have 109234 other things to do. Make your slides organized and legible, but perfection isn't required.
Student announcements: You may get requests from students (either in your class or even those outside your class) to come to lecture and make announcements about on-campus groups or events. I deny those requests since they cut into valuable class time, and I don't want to appear to be endorsing initiatives that I often don't know much about. However, I sometimes post those announcements to the class discussion forum if they seem relevant to the course and not just like random advertisements.
Emergencies: There should be an emergency phone in the classroom you can use. For minor emergencies, your TAs in class may be able to handle things while you keep teaching. For major emergencies, you may need to cancel class. In those cases, make sure to adjust the contents of nearby lectures, assignments, or exams accordingly so that students aren't responsible for material that you haven't yet covered. Again, expect the unexpected.
Finally, if you're feeling brave, have a trusted faculty colleague come observe a few of your lectures and write down feedback for you. This can be tremendously helpful since it's hard for you to notice shortcomings in your own speaking and classroom management style while you're up there lecturing. (This is how I learned early on that I tended to mumble and also to tunnel-vision fixate on a specific part of the classroom!)Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 6. interacting with students during the term