In the Classroom
This section offers advice on different teaching methods you can use in your classroom. In particular, it helps you think about how to foster lively discussion and participation, organize group work, integrate low-stakes writing, and lecture effectively. We conclude with some notes about building a classroom culture, and managing your classroom based on your policies and expectations.
Broadly speaking, classroom “discussion” refers to student-driven conversation—ideally, one in which as many members of the class as possible participate. Through discussion, students have the chance to interact with and learn from their peers, and share responsibility for determining the focus and direction of the class. Many faculty members initiate class discussions by asking a series of questions, and then working with student responses to generate momentum around a topic. This approach can be effective, but it can also lead to conversations that are dominated by a few strong voices or are unbalanced in other ways.
As you are preparing for your class, you might consider more structured approaches to nurturing class discussion. You might pose questions for discussion ahead of time on a course blog; have students take turns serving as discussion leaders; ask students to generate and/or discuss questions in small groups; or “scaffold” discussion by having students do a brief free-write on a question before you solicit responses. For more ideas about how to foster generative, inclusive discussions, check out these posts on the topic for Visible Pedagogy: https://vp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/category/teachcuny/discussion-strategies/.
In short, discussion offers students an opportunity to interact with each other, generate a shared knowledge base, and think through problems and issues as a group. Since discussions allow students to interact with each other, they can also help foster a sense of classroom community.
To make sure everyone participates in a class discussion, you might consider starting the discussion in a small group and ask students to each address specific questions/topics, or you might give the students a few minutes prior to the group discussion to get their thinking organized through a freewrite, a practice quiz, or some other low stakes assignments.
If a discussion stalls, you might write the main ideas on the board and have the class work to connect them. Or draw out your starting place and map where you want to end or what ground you’ve covered. Interesting discussions are great, but sometimes students and you need to have a goal in mind: what is the objective of the discussion and where have you moved from the start of class to the end?
In addition to whole-group discussions, instructors can break their classes into smaller groups to work on a particular task or problem. You can organize group work as an in-class or out-of-class assignment, and use small group structures at nearly any point in the learning process. Group work often invites students who are hesitant to participate or ask questions during class discussions or lectures, and it’s a great way to build a sense of community among students. Group work also encourages students to become active learners, by inviting them to work independently of the instructor, while still providing them with a support structure within which to ask questions and test ideas.
You might consider putting students in groups of three to four students and then rotating the groups three or four times in the semester, or you might decide to put students in a new group each time an activity or assignment asks them to work together. Both models have benefits and potential drawbacks. On the one hand, by working together multiple times, students will likely feel increasingly comfortable with their group and method of working together. But then, once a group’s dynamic is established, it isn’t likely to change: the leader of the group will likely be the leader for the next project as well, some groups will work together better than others, people drop the class and shift the balance of a group, etc. You might consider assigning roles within a group to allow participants to focus on particular tasks such as note-taker, reporter, or researcher. When assigning group projects, consider introducing peer evaluations as a way to address anxiety about assessment in this kind of assignment, and to give participants another opportunity to both reflect upon and promote their contributions to the group’s work.
Tip: Think about using online collaborative-friendly platforms to help facilitate group projects. For some ideas, see the TLC’s Guide on Educational Technology: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/educational-technology/.
Integrating low-stakes exercises into your curriculum can increase student engagement, keep them on track with readings, and prepare them for the more formal and higher-stakes assignments later on in the semester. Low-stakes writing can take the the form of in-class freewriting, letters, journal or notebook entries, and blogging, and these assignments can help students find their own language to think through the issues the course raises. Low-stakes writing can help students get in the habit of producing prose that’s clear, alive, and natural, preventing contrived and tangled language in follow-up exercises. As Composition and Rhetoric scholar Peter Elbow’s work has shown, it is the perfect place for students to translate their nonverbal knowing into verbal knowing, as they can “fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say” (6). These assignments are not graded and often quickly read by the instructor, mostly to gauge the students’ thought processes and their responses to their teaching.
It is important to acknowledge that the mere presence of low-stakes writing exercises does not guarantee that your students learn and write better. It’s also important to explain to your students why you ask them to do such exercises. You want the purpose and value of regular low-stakes writing to be clear both to yourself and to your students. For instance, when you discuss a complex theoretical concept, you might ask your students to try describing it in their own words, or do a brief in-class free-write in which they connect it to their personal lives so that it becomes more tangible. As another example, you can ask your students to write two letters about the topic to two different audiences—perhaps one to a friend and one to a professor—to help them become more aware of the rhetorical choices involved in writing. Finally, you can ask students to summarize what they learned in a short freewrite or “exit ticket” during the last five minutes of class. These writings can help them later prepare for any exams.
Effective lectures can fill an entire class meeting or punctuate sessions that mix modes of exchange. Keep in mind, though, that these are different kinds of lectures which present different challenges. Finding your voice as a lecturer requires preparation, organization, practice, and experience.
Tip: As you prepare your lecture, you might think of it as a model for how you’d like your students to present or make an argument (verbal or written). If you can model that form for your students–and make it explicit as a model–then students can begin to recognize how content is organized which will help them not only mimic that format but learn how to take and organize the notes they generate from your lectures.
As you’re planning your lecture, be sure to connect it explicitly to course materials. Explain:
- What you expect students to be able to do with your lecture
- The kind of content your lecture provides
- The relationship between the lecture and the course readings
- The relationship between the lecture and course exams or assignments
You might produce supplemental materials and distribute them prior to the lecture, or prepare slides for your presentation. For example:
- An outline with major topics that will be covered
- A printout of powerpoint slides
- Key vocabulary, dates, titles, names, etc.
Think about time! Our instinct is often to pack more information into a lecture than we can reasonably cover given the length of time we have, and given the attention spans of our students. Remember a lecture can take a variety of forms and shapes. As you think about how to present your material, consider the following questions:
- Would it be helpful to break the lecture up with an activity or a different voice (an audio or film clip)?
- If you’re planning a structured lecture for the full class period, how will you handle student questions, requests for clarification, and discussion?
- If you save questions for the end, be sure you leave enough time. Is it more effective to divide your lecture into sections and take questions after each section?
- Do you intend to use another platform for lecture questions such as a discussion board or response paper?
- Have you factored in time for reminders and/or questions about future assignments or reading?
- Do you expect students to take notes during the lecture? If so, it’s a good idea to say so, and even to devote some time to addressing note-taking best practices.
- Will the lectures be interactive—that is, will you ask students to contribute any lecture content themselves, or will you intersperse activities, such as writing and/or problem-solving exercises, to keep them actively involved?
For more resources on preparing a lecture for a large class, check out “Handling the uber-large Lecture: an Interview with John DeNero” and “Six ways to make lectures in a large enrollment course more manageable and effective” both from UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
Creating a Classroom Community
While most of the time the classroom is an amazing space, where exciting and supportive communities emerge, there are times when something comes up that poses a problem. Whether it’s a student who is always making a scene by coming in late, someone who is constantly trying to text on the sly–or someone texting blatantly in the front row–or tension among students during class discussion, one of the best ways to minimize behaviors you don’t want is by being very clear from the start about what your classroom policies are and how they form the culture of your classroom. Make sure you take time in the early stages of the semester to explain how you hope the space will function and what your expectations are for yourself and your students.
Even if you outline your policies and expectations, or have determined what those are in collaboration with your students, there still might be moments when things don’t go smoothly. Again, the first strategy for navigating these difficult moments is to be clear from the outset about what your classroom rules are. Make sure that when situations arise, you handle them fairly: if students think a policy is only for certain members of the class, that policy (and others) won’t last long. Every classroom is different, and what works well for one instructor might not mesh with another. Think about modifying these strategies to fit your teaching philosophy.
For more on common issues that arise in the classroom and strategies for how to respond, see the TLC Guide “New to Teaching: During the Semester”: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/during-the-semester/#Tricky_Classroom_Moments.