Teaching (very) large classes

-Ana

This semester I am teaching a large lecture course with about 175 students. I have taught this course 6 times before, with enrollment varying between 150 to 200. To be completely accurate, I only teach a third of the course, usually the first third of the semester, with two hearing faculty leading the other portions. Of course, teaching even a third of a course represents a challenge when your hearing is as crappy as mine. Therefore, my top priority for this class is ensuring that the students and I can communicate effectively (I speech-read and don’t sign). How do I do it? And does it work?

Like much of my professional life, the answer to the question “does it work?” shifts frequently. Some days I come out of class thinking I’ve nailed it and given students the educational experience they deserve. Other days, not so much. But, for better or worse, here is what I do:

I start out by making a very explicit announcement about being deaf/HoH the first day of class. I love the language that Michele used in her recent post about announcing your deafness to your class, and am thinking of borrowing some of this language next semester. Besides giving students tips on how best to communicate with me, my main preoccupation this first day is to emphasize that my deafness should not in any way scare them from asking questions, as I will work hard to ensure our communication. In a class this size, I am not always 100% sure I am getting this message across, but I try.

The second thing I started doing 3 or 4 years ago is using clickers. This classroom response system allows students to use handheld remotes to choose from alternative answers to a question I have posed, and I can assess their understanding in real-time. For me, this opportunity to interact with ALL students in my very large class, bypassing the usual difficulties of oral communication, is a radical departure from the usual state of affairs. I really like clickers, and love not having to dread the very solid silence that sometimes followed my lobbing a question to the class, while vainly hoping that an individual would venture an answer. However, clicker questions only go in one direction; they are no substitute for class discussion or questions asked by students.

So the final frontier—answering students’ questions! Large classes are, by their very nature, less interactive than smaller ones, as students are much more reticent about speaking out. I will here make a shameful confession in the era of “active learning” buzzwords—I derive some amount of comfort (or at least a decrease in anxiety) from knowing that a large class means fewer questions for me. Of course, questions still get asked, so the problems remain (and what serious instructor would prefer that their students ask less questions?!).

Walking up to students when they ask a question is not really an option in this course. I teach in auditorium-style classrooms and there is no way to get close to a student sitting in the middle of a row. What I have been doing instead is getting myself a student translator. I don’t have a TA, so I designate somebody in the class, ideally seated in the first row, to repeat questions for me. I have tried a few different student translator strategies. One semester I hired a work-study student to perform this role. The student was not a biology major and struggled mightily with the scientific vocabulary in the class—which meant that I struggled to understand the questions. I chalked this up as one of my not-so-good semesters. Another semester I asked a different student in the course to play the translator role each class period (in the interest of not overburdening anybody); this led to a lot of re-explaining of what I needed at the start of each class, which in turn led to awkwardness. Most semesters what I’ve done is ask two students—one for each side of the room—at the beginning of the semester if they are willing to play this role.

In general, things worked better once I started asking enrolled students for help, as students immersed in the class are very capable of understanding their classmates’ questions. A nice consequence is that most students feel surprised and elated to be asked to perform the translator role (that said, a few students have turned me down). Yet each year I find myself re-evaluating what I do. There can (and have been for me) hiccups with this approach. Examples are, designated students missing a class, leaving you without a translator.  Or, students’ unease about speaking up in large classes might result in your designated translator whispering, and now you have TWO students you can’t understand; to work around this, I have occasionally fitted my student translator with a directional mic that my FM system can pick up, but have found the amplified sound of notebook pages being turned too overwhelming. Finally, there is that constant whispering doubt: is it fair to ask a student to perform this extra bit of work for me?

You will notice an underlying thread to these strategies. At no point have I asked my university or department for help (though I should clarify that my department contributed to the work-study hire I once tried). Why not? Hmm, this sounds like material for another blog post. What I’m doing seems, for the most part, to be working for me so far. But there is room for improvement. I would be thrilled to hear from other deaf/HoH instructors about the strategies used to manage large classes.

6 thoughts on “Teaching (very) large classes

  1. That’s a great idea! I have not, for tangled reasons that mostly boil down to uncertainty about the sorts of accommodations I could/should have asked for, particularly in my pre-tenure days. This is not necessarily a reflection of my institution, but more of my own ignorance (as an immigrant to the US it took me a long time to learn about possible accommodations), and of the “can do” attitude that we often convince ourselves is necessary to get tenure. Complicated answer…material for another post!

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    1. You can also request an interpreter to serve as an oral transliterator (repeats questions so you can speechread). The benefit of working with an interpreter as opposed to a work-study student is that interpreters are trained to do this work. And you can likely find someone knowledgeable about the content of your discipline (or develop a pool of people who are familiar with your course content).

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      1. For sure! But it is worth remembering that not all countries have ADA equivalents and thus not all institutions will have ADA Compliance Coordinators. Thus, I think it is useful to share different strategies that deaf/HoH instructors have used to see if there are any that seems a particular good fit for those of us still looking for solutions to our large class conundrum. On The Mind Hears twitter account there were some exciting suggestions about using Slido for students to post questions anonymously in real time, or perhaps using Twitter or WhatsApp for the same effect.

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      2. I have also found, in my limited interactions with Disability Services (not quite the ADA Compliance Coordinator, but I think the situation is similar), that they are better versed at finding solutions for deaf/HoH students than for deaf/HoH instructors. Thus, it is often necessary to already come with a strategy in mind before requesting administrative help. Unfortunately, I also tend to not know what will work until I try it out several times, and I am pretty sure there are good ideas out there that I am not coming up with. Hence my great interest in community input on the various approaches used by deaf/HoH instructors in large classes!

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