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Daring to try new teaching strategies in your course

Rhonda Amsel

This post featuring Prof. Rhonda Amsel is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On June 12, 2015, Rhonda was the guest speaker at a session entitled Daring to Try New Teaching Strategies in your Large Class.

Rhonda Amsel teaches stats … stats classes of 300-400 undergrads from across the disciplines. She’s been teaching stats for over 40 years, and as suggested by the title of her presentation, not only is she not complacent about her teaching, but it’s obvious she still enjoys it. With her wry sense of humour, she quipped that teaching in an auditorium provides many of the challenges of a live performance, like Math-donna in front of an audience (but with more conservative costumes.)

Rhonda tries something new in her teaching every year, and even if the change doesn’t go well, she usually tries it again with some fine-tuning. Given the number of variables involved in the teaching and learning enterprise, she believes it’s important to try a change at least twice before deciding whether or not to keep it.

Part of daring to try new teaching strategies is making your students partners in the experiment. To this end, Rhonda makes a point of telling her students when she’s trying something new and why. “Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to fail … spectacularly,” Rhonda said encouragingly. It’s modelling: if students see her taking a risk, she hopes they, in turn, will be more willing to take risks, and understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process.

While the topic of the presentation was trying new teaching strategies in large classes, and several examples were given of changes that Rhonda has tried—both successful and not—questions from attendees inevitably led to discussion about how one manages certain strategies with large classes. For example, attendees wanted to know how Rhonda fosters engagement with in-class—in auditorium—learning. One way is by having interaction with students, despite the size of the class. She encourages questions in class and then responds to students’ queries in real time by talking through her answer as she writes it “on screen” using a document camera. Because a large part of the class is spontaneous discussion, Rhonda does not audio record her classes for uploading to the course website but provides a course pack of class notes and exercises to organize the material. She believes students benefit from being physically present in her class to engage in the discussion. Rhonda believes, “The spontaneity of live discussion generates energy and helps students to learn. It also helps me to teach better.”

Cluster sampling
By Dan Kernler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Another way Rhonda fosters engagement with in-class learning is by making statistics personally relevant to the students. She integrates stats with students’ personal data, that is, whatever they’re willing to share anonymously. Students submit responses to questions, for example, about their height, age, sleep patterns, and breakfast eating habits. Data are compiled in an Excel spreadsheet and then used throughout the course to demonstrate different methods of analysis. You can just imagine students focused on figuring where they fall among the stats! It’s worth noting here one suggestion made by an attendee: create an anonymous survey in myCourses in order to efficiently collect data from students and then create a report with the click of a mouse.

A question in a different vein pertained to time management: How does Rhonda handle email in classes of 300-400 students? More of her wry humour—she tells students that she has a life beyond her stats course (no responses at 3:00 a.m.) and suggests that they should, too! Rhonda did admit that email is often time-consuming. Stats questions are not so easily addressed in brief email replies, and sometimes it is easier for students to see her during office hours, which suits Rhonda because she enjoys meeting with students face to face. Another noteworthy suggestion was offered by an attendee: as a means for managing email in large classes, create an email Resource Account that the professor and TAs can share. That way, all correspondence pertaining to a given course is compiled in one email account.

One last question had to do with advice for new instructors who aren’t yet seasoned performers like Madonna: What should a new instructor focus on? Rhonda’s response was unequivocal: “Relax. Focus on the students and try to get that first class just right because it sets the tone for the rest of term.”

Relaxation strategies were not part of the discussion, but you might be interested in reading one novice teacher’s advice about how to win over your class: “Don’t be afraid to be you.”

If you teach, what strategies do you use to get the first class of term off to a good start?

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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