Large-class teaching presents many challenges, which I learned firsthand last term when I taught a 170-student introduction to environmental humanities course, ENVS 203. The course is part of the core sequence required for all Environmental Studies and Environmental Science majors, but also fulfills the Arts and Letters Group Requirement, which means a significant percentage of non-majors take it. It’s organized into two weekly “lectures” and separate discussion sections led by GTFs. I’m used to teaching courses of 40-50 students with no separate sections or assistants – “large” by some measures, but quite different from what I was facing in the fall. Among many concerns, one in particular stood out as I planned the course: how to keep so many students engaged with the course content in a manner that felt authentic and meaningful to them.
Much of the discussion about student engagement in large courses centers on what happens inside the classroom, particularly with how to move beyond the traditional lecture and create a more interactive learning environment. Use of personal response systems, like “clickers,” for example, has become a popular strategy for increasing student involvement in class. Another strategy gaining prominence is “flipping” the classroom – putting lectures online and using the classroom for application exercises such as problem-solving or team-based learning. Working at TEP, I’m well aware of these approaches and stories of their success. But in preparing for my own large class, I focused on a different strategy for going “beyond the lecture” to stimulate student involvement: I attempted to boost students’ engagement outside the classroom.
There is nothing new, of course, in assigning students work outside of class. Yet I wanted students to do more than read or study or write about what they were reading or studying. So one of the learning objectives I developed for students was to “contemplate values and actions and reflect on how they shape and are shaped by their interactions with the world.” For me, this meant having students use ideas presented and discussed in class to interact with their environment and reflect on their experience. Indeed, ultimately my students are challenged to think through the ways cultural assumptions and perceptions inform environmental values, perspectives and practices—and how these in turn shape structures of power and privilege. Continue reading Faculty reflection: A large-class instructor asks students to look around