Work with teaching assistants to create effective interactive lectures (opinion)


One day our class started with spoons. As the students entered the lecture hall, the teaching assistants, offering no explanation, handed each fourth or fifth student some sort of spoon. Spoons varied widely in terms of age, style, and production – there were handmade wooden spoons, colonial-era silverware, early versions of mass-produced baby spoons and many more. others.

With 133 students, our class was large and the university had assigned us a typical lecture hall with stadium-style seating for the bi-weekly lectures. The students also attended weekly discussion sections in groups of 15 with one of the course’s five teaching assistants, so that they got to know their teaching assistant and section colleagues well.

The students settled into their seats, many of them now holding spoons. As the rows were long and the hall had few aisles, it was difficult for them to move around or talk to more than a couple of other students. Nonetheless, familiar with the literature linking active learning techniques to increased comprehension and retention, one of us – Zachary, the course leader – made a commitment to regularly reverse his class.

He offered the essential questions for the day (“How can objects help us tell better stories about the past? How is historiography made up of different stories about the past?”), Then a asked students to form groups of five people and describe, interpret, and analyze a spoon as a primary historical source. After having reread “A guide to watchWritten by staff at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the groups began to speculate about the material, size, decoration, inscription, wear, use and value of the spoon. . And from those observations, they began to use historical thinking to draw conclusions about the time period their particular spoon came from.

This activity took place last fall in our Experimental History Methods course, aimed at giving students with little experience in reading, writing and history both an understanding of the field and mastery of skills applicable to d other courses and their future professional life. We have incorporated frequent active learning exercises into our lectures, as has become increasingly common, even in large classes. In this essay, the two of us – Zachary and one of the teaching assistants, Marion – offer our thoughts on our challenges and successes by inverting our classroom into a large amphitheater.

Rethinking the role of TA

The traditional conference is, once again, old-fashioned. The conference has been proven to be a multimedia, somewhat interactive process since the beginning of the modern period, and today many instructors are again trying to bring more active learning into the boardroom. Instructors like Kelly Hogan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are committed to not only more active learning in the classroom, but also to more inclusive learning. Hogan uses guided reading questions and outlines with blanks to fill in for the lecture and performs digital polls in real time. Likewise, Claire Major, a professor at the University of Alabama, uses three types of techniques – which she calls bookends, overlays, and dividers – to do what she calls interactive conference.

What we think could make these more interactive lectures even more effective is for teachers to take advantage of the other professional teachers in the auditorium: teaching assistants.

The tactile nature of the spoon activity made it particularly accessible to students, and they enthusiastically approached the interpretation of a material object. But the deliberate buzz in the room was not in itself what made this activity so successful. Like Robert Talbert, author of Reverse learning: a guide for higher education teachers, noted, while well-designed active learning experiences are essential to the success of the flip class, designing an activity and getting students to engage in it is not enough. Equally important is the continuous coaching and supervision of the instructor during the activity, ensuring high quality interactions between this person and the students and between the students themselves.

Groups of students working alone are unlikely to have achieved the learning objective of understanding how historians use primary sources to understand cultural transitions and structural changes over time. And even moving quickly around the amphitheater, Zachary alone could have reached only a few of the 27 groups to offer them advice. After a few minutes, however, dozens of students engaged in the exercise, but many groups struggled to deepen their analyzes; they were able to describe what they saw but had difficulty making a historical argument based on their observations.

In most lectures, students sit wherever they want. They may have a friend or two near them, but other students can be strangers to them. The instructors decided at the start of the semester to take advantage of social media and the familiarity of the discussion section in the lecture portion of the class. After the drop-add was completed, Zachary set up a PowerPoint slide with a seating chart and asked the students to sit down with their 15-person discussion sections for each lecture. When the students were given an active learning exercise, smaller learning groups formed within these focus groups where the students already knew each other. The TAs sat down with their sections, and whenever the conference had an active learning component, they circulated among their small groups, asking and answering questions.

On Spoon Day, teaching assistants moved from group to group, prompting students to ask themselves questions such as “How would a person have acquired this spoon?” How many people would have owned such a spoon? How was this spoon made, who made it and what characterized the life of the makers? In this way, the teaching team created structured conditions so that the students could not only begin their inquiry on their own (“What is this thing, what does it look like and feels- it, and who, in my opinion, could have used it? “), but also to develop their inquiry under the guidance of a teacher who prompted them to consider the complex cultural and economic implications of material objects.

Such a structured inquiry is common in small seminars, but it is much more difficult to achieve in a large conference with a single instructor. The crucial element here was the role of teaching assistants – usually confined to teaching the section – taking an assertive role during the “lecture”, normally the sacrosanct province of the course leader. Rethinking the role of teaching assistants, enforcing seat assignments that support the effectiveness of these teachers, and adopting a team approach transformed the conference into something akin to a seminar environment. The teaching assistants were also able, in real time, to give Zachary, as the course leader, quick feedback on the ideas their students were generating or the challenges they were encountering.

Some permanent challenges

That said, we have found that the structural barriers to active learning in a lecture course – such as fixed seating arrangements and a large student-teacher ratio – are significant. Getting up and sneaking past other students to regroup can be a tricky and time consuming endeavor. This requires specific instructions on where and how to physically locate, as well as several teachers pushing and accompanying the students. The large number of students also makes it difficult to keep track of group work and ensure that students meet expectations. And the burning presence of a phone in each student’s pocket is a particular obstacle to focused group work in a crowded conference room with the professor across the room. Even the best constructed active learning exercise can be hampered by these obstacles.

Indeed, even when we thought we had anticipated such challenges, we sometimes found it difficult to make an active learning exercise work. When the learning exercises were more open-ended or complex than the spoon activity, it was more difficult.

Such challenges expose the false assumption that simply putting students into groups with good questions or tasks will cause them to interact successfully. It is also unrealistic to suggest that teachers get an appropriately sized room with a better setup for group work, as most large rooms are set up for lessons. Finally, we recognize that it is not possible to involve teaching assistants in lectures in all institutions: some of our colleagues teach 133 students and do not have teaching assistants to help with the teaching. active learning.

But as a step forward, despite the challenges, we would judge our lecture with a spoon and other attempts at active learning as successful experiences in the social construction of knowledge. Not only was the course leader not the sage on stage, the students also discussed the material and had to justify how they thought about it. One student said: “The little discussions we have with neighbors during class help us retain information well and strengthen the effect of the classes. “

Most of the students who commented on this think-pair-share approach during the lectures were positive. One said that the “conference breaks for class discussion and personal reflection. [were] to keep us on topic, but look at the material in a different way. The same student, however, failing to realize that elementary school teachers can be better trained pedagogues than middle school instructors, also noted that “Sometimes this class reminded me of my fourth year social studies class, but it is only to say that the information was simple. . “

Despite some limitations, we recommend this method to other instructors. It breaks the monotony – and, more precisely, the passivity for the students – of a lecture. This method also makes excellent use of TA expertise, rather than making them mere spectators. Without the required technology, it makes active learning a daily classroom experience: it radically decentre the head of the course as the sole source of knowledge. The students might not have taken this approach, but they certainly didn’t seem to hate it, judging by the anonymous reviews.


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