October 31, 2011

Who’s Who: Getting to Know Your Students in Large Classes

By Ashleigh Lowery, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

I walked into my undergraduate Organic Chemistry class ready to begin the semester.  I had a new notebook, pencils, and the large expensive textbook.  Our professor started by reviewing the syllabus, as expected, and then unexpectedly passed around a blank index card to each of the 120 students in the lecture hall.  “I want you all to write your name, where you are from, your major, and something interesting about yourself.  Telling me that you want to go to med school is not interesting.  I want a real fun fact – like you were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

I was impressed and surprised at the next lecture when he told us all about some of the people in our class.  One had taught English in Thailand, one had just run his first marathon and one person, in fact, had been on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  I was even more impressed when I had an appointment for office hours later in the semester and the professor began by asking me about my hometown and interests.  It was obvious he had pulled my index card.  Over the semester, it was clear that this professor had developed great communication with our class and was able to form relationships despite the class size.  He was not just teaching to anonymous faces in a crowd.  I learned a lot that semester and was never hesitant to approach our professor when I had a question.

In large lectures, getting to know your students does not come as easily as it may in smaller teaching settings.  However, it is just as important in order to create a positive learning environment for your students.  It just may take some more creative approaches, or 120 index cards.

In an article in College Teaching, Jan Armstrong of the University of New Mexico describes a similar approach to getting to know her students.1  The article is titled, “Write me a letter: challenging anonymity in large-enrollment classes.”  Armstrong hands out sheets of lined paper and asks students to write an informal introduction letter, stating “Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you are taking this course.  Tell me whatever you think I should know about you.”  She then reviews all of the letters and spends a few minutes in subsequent class sessions introducing individual students to the class and incorporating noteworthy or humorous information.

The University of North Carolina Charlotte provides a “Survival Handbook for Teaching Large Classes,” which includes a section titled “How can I reduce the feeling of student anonymity.”2  This provides an assortment of ideas, from taking Polaroid pictures of your students to greeting each student at the entrance of the classroom.  Some of the other suggestions include:
-  Ask students to wear nametags so that you can call on them by name
-  Have students place name cards in front of them during exams so you can learn names while you wander the room
-  Hand back tests individually to associate names with faces
-  Arrive early to class and chat with students who are already there
-  Stay after class to answer individual questions
-  Invite groups of students to coffee to get acquainted

The University of Maryland Center for Teaching Excellence also provides a guide for teaching large classes.3  One of their interesting ideas is for professors to host an “open house” during the first class session when students have a change to meet and talk with the professor.  They also emphasize the importance of having frequent and flexible office hours in order to meet and help more students.

Without a doubt, these efforts to get to know your students are worth it.  A study at the University of Illinois at Chicago assessed the impact of student-faculty informal contact and college outcomes and found that significant positive associations exist between extent and quality of student-faculty informal contact and students’ education aspirations, their attitudes toward college, their academic achievement, intellectual and personal development, and their institutional persistence.4 

Richard Tiberius of the University of Toronto described the importance of this relationship well by stating, “The relationship between teachers and learners can be viewed as a set of filters, interpretive screens, or expectations that determine the effectiveness of interaction between teacher and student…within [effective] relationships, learners are willing to disclose their lack of understanding rather than hide it from their teachers; learners are more attentive, ask more questions, are more actively engaged.”5 

Regardless of your style, pharmacy education is bound to include some large lectures.  We should all remember to make our best efforts to get to know our students, for both our benefit and theirs.

1.  Armstrong J. Write me a letter: Challenging anonymity in large-enrollment classes. College Teaching 2008; 56: 63.
2.  Ives SM.  A Survival Handbook for TeachingLarge Classes.  University of North Carolina Charlotte Faculty Center for Teaching; 2000.
3.  Large Classes: A Teaching Guide:Personalizing the Large Class.  University of Maryland Center for Teaching Excellence; 2008.
4.  Pascarella ET.  Student-faculty informal contact and college outcomes.  Review of Educational Research 1980;50:545-595.
5.  Tiberius RG, Billson JM.  The social context of teaching and learning.  In Menges RJ, Svinicki MD, editors.  College Teaching:  From Theory to Practice.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc; 1991.  p. 67-86.

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