This past week was Thanksgiving break, but Michigan State’s classes met until Wednesday. I had heard from colleagues that many students do not attend classes this week. In fact, some said that in their classes of 250+ students, about 10-30 will attend on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a claim corroborated by my own observations of other’s classes on Wednesday. This decreased attendance has led some of my colleagues (and me) to question why we even hold class on the day prior to Thanksgiving. To be fair to our students, East Lansing is a college town and most of them have family in other parts of Michigan, and who wouldn’t want to get home to their family earlier?
But this post isn’t about that (really). It isn’t about how my class attendance is still high, even for this past week, the penultimate week of class. What it is about is what I think drives that high attendance and what we might do nurture it. Some colleagues have asked me about this. My daily attendance still hovers around 85%, and this week I had 180 students attend Tuesday’s class and over 100 attend Wednesday’s.
I have been hard-pressed to identify a single feature that helps me understand this phenomenon. Some of my colleagues have attributed it to me (“Your students really like you.”), some to the pedagogy (“Your class is really active.”), and others to the syllabus (“Clickers are mandatory?”). I believe what is most likely contributing to this phenomenon is that students want to learn in an environment where their ideas are respected and validated. Respecting and validating student ideas is part of the instructor’s role and can be done using particular pedagogies, but is what, I believe, students want from the teaching of their classes.
Getting students to express their ideas in a large lecture section
In a class of more than 250, getting students to express their ideas freely is very challenging. Students must feel the learning environment is safe and comfortable, that is, that their ideas can be expressed, that we (the class) want to hear them, and that we (the class) want to discuss them to gain a deeper understanding. When students feel comfortable doing this, each class meeting is that much more valuable.
I have worked to cultivate this type of environment over the entire semester. Because of the size of my class (and other environmental and cultural constraints), my primary pedagogy has been clicker questions coupled to Peer Instruction. While clicker questions can be used for good as well as evil, I chiefly use them for two things: (1) To check how students’ “knowledge development” is going, and (2) To have students express their ideas (right or wrong). Checking in with students using qualitative clicker questions is a common pedagogy for this size of class. But, a number of clicker questions are simply “What do you think?” or “We’re just looking for ideas here.”
These questions are meant to act as discussion starters. They might involve thinking about a strategy to approach a problem (should we use conservation of momentum vs conservation of energy), what physics can be extracted from a given situation (what is the slipping condition for some system), or what a solution might imply about some real world application (what can a melting ice cube tells us about global warming). Students then offer answers and I encourage them to (respectfully) critique the ideas of others until we come to some consensus. Usually, this takes about 5-7 minutes of class time, which is a lot given the pace of this course (a chapter per week).
A “result” of respecting students’ ideas
This brings me to last Wednesday class when 100 students attended the last class meeting prior to Thanksgiving (which absolutely shocked my colleague who teaches after me). I asked my students in the previous class, “How many of you will be here tomorrow?” About 85 said they would. So, I asked my postdoc to attend class, so we could run a tutorial activity. Students are learning about simple harmonic motion; there’s few tutorials out there for this topic. We modified a middle-division tutorial developed at UMaine and GVSU.
The room in which our class is held is a typical large auditorium. Prior to class, we placed numbers 1-20 around the edges of the room and asked students to draw numbers from a hat. We started 20 groups of 5 (or so) students working on the tutorial. Only 1 student chose to leave when he realized there would be “no lecture.”
At first, most of the students were working individually (and were fairly quiet). As we walked around the room, we asked individuals to compare the answers they were writing with their group members (who were often working individually as well). Many times their answers didn’t agree, which lead to productive discussions. As the class went on, students began sitting on the floor and climbing over rows to discuss with their group mates. The volume in the room went up tremendously.
I have used tutorials a lot. I wrote several for middle and upper-division mechanics while I was a postdoc at Colorado. Just like clickers, they are not a silver bullet, but they can be used to encourage students to express their own ideas. And if the tutorials are facilitated such that students feel their ideas are validated and respected (even when they are not quite correct), they work hard to develop their own understanding of the material.
Investing in students
In the future, I would like to use more activities like tutorials in classes at MSU. The challenge is the scale that we are working with. Empirical evidence shows that a student-to-instructor ratio of around 20:1 works well for these activities. In this class meeting, we were fortunate that one of our lecturers was very interested in observing the tutorial. We started with a 50:1 ratio, and he quickly became another facilitator giving us a ratio closer to 30:1. For a 250+ person class meeting, this represents an investment of 12 to 13 instructional staff (professor, graduate and undergraduate TAs), which is tall order. If you have ideas on how to broach this, I’d love to hear them.