Keeping students engaged in large lecture classes. Part 1


Hi, I’m Graham Glynn, Assistant Provost for Teaching, Learning and Technology at Stony Brook University and this is Innovations in Education. In our show, we feature Faculty and Staff using innovative approaches and best
practices in teaching, and how applications of educational
technology can have a positive effect on student learning. On today’s show I’m joined by Dr. Tom
Hemmick, distinguished teaching professor at Stony Brook in the department of
physics and astronomy. We’ll be discussing how to keep students
engaged in large lecture classes. Welcome to the show, Tom.
Hemmick: Thank you, Graham. Graham: So tell me a little bit about the classes you teach and the venue in which you teach them. Mostly I’ve been teaching the
introductory physics course whether they’re for physics majors and engineers or they’re for life science students and as a result of that the class sizes are often very large. Typically I’m teaching between two
hundred to seven hundred students and in this case, the biggest challenge is, of
course, keeping the attention of a very large
number of students during a lecture. Glynn: So you’re a major big proponent of the lecture
method of delivering courses. Tell me why you think that’s an
effective approach. Hemmick: I like the lecture because the lecture
is somehow personal. What I find is that as I’m teaching the first thing I need to do is have the
students’ attention and in order to have the attention I
need to maintain the attention. I have several tricks but in particular you need to pay attention. So as you’re teaching the class, if you’re just back and looking at there’s what i’ve written and isn’t it interesting, you’re not interested and neither are they
but in fact as you turn to a lecture class–in the process of simply
monitoring whether they’re paying attention you meet the students’ eyes and in that process not only do you find
out whether they’re paying attention but also you make the experience very
personal and even in a very large lecture hall you can, while looking across the students, catch many eyes during the lecture and
in this case it can become sort of intimate and one to one despite the size of
the class. Glynn: You feel that eye contact is enough to keep attention? Hemmick: Not always. Occasionally you actually
have to turn it into a small weapon because as you’re looking across the
classroom you’ll spot someone and they’re looking down, or away, or up, or
somewhere else, and in this case what you can do is
lecture straight into their averted eyes and then at some point their glance will meet yours “[Gasp] He sees me.” At that moment a student will be immediately brought back to lecture. So for a while you can tend
to maintain the attention through this kind of a little trick. More overall, actually the fact that you’re interested
in the topic makes you interesting and every professor has an advantage in
this because they’re teaching what they love and so it
is interesting for them. You continue to communicate that and
make eye contact, but over time eventually you won’t be able to keep up
with the number of students whose eyes are averted and so you have to find some other way to do things. When the tone of your voice and louds and softs and pause and looking at students give up, you have
to find some other way to make an abrupt change, an abrupt change that suddenly, no matter whether you’re paying
attention or not, someone goes “What’s that? Something’s different.” For me what what I love to do is tell stories. So just through my life and also through watching
things and noticing, wow, this is a good story because you know, when things go bad first there’s bad, then there’s bad enough to be a good story and so you can spend your life
collecting these things up and so, for example, I’ll give a lecture in which I explain the velocity of sound formula and in this lecture you need to
understand that sound waves are caused by an adiabatic expansion and contraction of the gas because there’s no source of heat and
then you derive and you derive and you derive and you come up with a formula and so my story for that when that gets
to be boring, and that gets to be boring sometimes, is to tell students that, you know what, when I
was a freshman I was at a commuter campus just like yours and I made the freshman blunder. I took an 8:20 class Tuesday and Thursday, despite the fact that I had a thirty
minute commute. Oh! That was terrible! Don’t worry, I spent Monday night and
Wednesday night at my grandmother’s house, who lived two miles from the university and each night I would come home and I would
tell her what I’d done in physics and she wasn’t trained in physics and so she would ask a few questions but then
one night I say, we’ve been studying sound. and so she said, “Oh, you’ve been studying sound.” “Yes.” “Well in that case, if on Saturday evening the furnace in the church breaks and on Sunday morning it’s extremely
cold is the pipe organ sharp or flat?” I thought about it and I put on my
usual distinguished air of a know-it-all and
explain to her that because the temperature is lower the pipes will
shrink them and because the pipes are shorter, the frequency will be higher, and so the
pipe organ is sharp. She looked me in the eye and she said “The pipe organ is flat. I don’t know why, but when YOU do, then you will have learned
something.” and so when I just break up the lecture
with that sort of a story coming in then students are able to relax for a
moment and get themselves focused and say “Hey, that’s in there,” and then the reason that story is so important is you can explain why I was wrong. The reason was that the velocity of sound formula that we just derived had a square root of temperature in the
numerator and the low temperature cause the
velocity of sound to drop. That’s why the pipe organ frequency is low. And that’s what we just got in our formula! So and if if that isn’t enough, then that
same formula has the mass of the gas, which is normally nitrogen but of course if you replace it with
helium by breathing it out of a balloon you can then explain to them in a Donald Duck voice why the rest of this formula is also important.
So just little things like this that as you monitor the class, you notice that the attention is failing, you find a way to personalize it, bring
it back, change and really make a break in the pace and the tone just to bring people’s eyes back to you so that you’re interesting enough to follow for
the rest of the hour. Glynn:Do you use humor as one of those tools?
Hemmick: Oh sure. Anytime I can come up with something humorous I love to and the interesting thing is I’m not all that funny. However you’ve probably heard the phrase “nervous
laugh” and that is when two people are nervous with
[imitates halting laugh] how everything is leaving you on the edge of laughing. Well what better situation is there than a group of students watching a
lecture every one of them is slightly nervous
because the material is difficult and they need to learn it ’cause they need to
get a grade and if the professor cracks some jokes–
any joke no matter how lame, it’s funny in that context. So students have actually
noticed, I’ve been using the echo360. It’s not funny when I watch it in the
recording but it was funny while I was there and so you don’t need to be afraid if
you’re a lecturer to try a little bit of humor because people are ready to laugh. Glynn: Now you’re a natural performer. What about a faculty member that isn’t. How could they go about improving their skills and be a better performer in front of the audience?
Hemmick: Well, performer’s a good choice of words. What I find is that if you have
any sort of training, whether formal or informal in some sort of a performing
art, that this will serve you very well. It could be theater. It could be music, in my case. I’m not a professional musician
but I’ve had the joy of being directed in university
choirs and things like that by really good musicians and so this level of training actually comes through in subtle ways
that you wouldn’t imagine. I once gave a lecture and another faculty member was there and then later on he came to the
university choral performance and I was there also and he said “You know, I should have known by the way you
enunciated in your lecture that you sang.” and I never connected that. Wow! There is a need to communicate. Now what you’re
communicating is music and emotion but it’s a need to communicate and all [your words are like mud] [mumbled] because you don’t enunciate. No one can
understand your words. It’s not effective and so these things
tend to carry over and also, you know, if you perform in front of an audience here and
there than you get to be relaxed in front of a group of
students. Glynn: What about physical presence? Physical presence? I guess I…
Glynn:There are a lot faculty that will back and forth over the same three feet when they are addressing an audience. Just sort of… Hemmick: Yeah, I sort of move around
among the the more or less, thirty by thirty feet. I like to move. I like to use my
hand, you know, I can hardly keep them still here now and that’s especially important in a large
lecture hall.

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