Teaching Strategies for Classes Large and Small

Associational Brainstorming is an effective method of starting class or introducing a new topic or concept. Invite students to brainstorm everything that comes to mind related to a key word belonging to a new concept or naming a new topic. Encourage students to list cognitive and affective associations that come to mind. Use a slide or overhead to record all ideas. Accept everything without judgmental comment. Let them free associate. Next, try grouping recorded ideas. Ask students to come up with still more groupings and reasons for their added groups. Ask students to analyze the collected responses and identify themes, categories, connections, and patterns.

Evocative visuals or textual passages start a new topic—or the whole course—with emotional inspiration. Display a picture, a painting, a video clip, or read a powerful text passage. Show a chart or a graph that figures in content that you will teach. Ask students to brainstorm analysis of the item(s) presented. Ask questions to start the discussion: “What do you see?” “What’s going on?” “What does it mean to you?” “What do you think it this?” “Why do you think I showed this to you?” “How do you think this relates to what you are studying in this class?” Break the class into pairs or small groups (students seated in proximity) to let students share their impressions. Then regroup as an class, and ask them to comment. Different ideas will arise. Provide support and challenge. Model your own thinking about the presented item(s). Guide the flow of ideas into the concept topic you will teach next.

Debates exemplify different ways of thinking about a problem and solving it. And debates demonstrate higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. Without moving seats around, divide the class into several sections (possibly as many sections as there are ways of approaching the problem). Ask the large groups to think from the different perspectives and come up with arguments to defend that way of thinking. Give students 5 minutes to discuss in pairs or proximity-seating small groups. Then call the class to regroup and ask the different parts to volunteer with examples of their way of thinking. If you use this to debate technique to explore pros and cons, consider also a third group who must not take sides, but come up with reasons for an agnostic approach.

Role-playing works well in history, literature, or biochemistry classes. Divide the class into as many sections as you need to have for role playing. Ask them to prepare their arguments or plan their behavior representing the role they play (different characters of a play, different groups in history, different enzymes that could react and form new ones). Establish the context, and ask students to discuss briefly, in pairs or small groups, how their role would react. Then ask for representative descriptions from each section. Draw attention to consequences of possibly unanticipated behaviors.

Mini-Cases can be used as a start up for a lecture or placed in between topics to change the tempo of longer lectures and help students better understand through a specific example. Ask students to pair-up or form small groups by turning around to colleagues seated in proximity. One group presents the case to the entire class then pairs or small groups work for several minutes to develop responses by directly applying the lecture content to the case example.
Think-pair-share is another useful change-up in a long lecture. After 15-20 minutes of lecturing, ask a question. Ask students to write down responses to the question, and then turn to the next neighbor and discuss their responses. Spend no more than 5 minutes. Then ask several pairs to share their responses and, before moving on, conclude the exercise with a correct response.

Minute papers are a powerful way to assess the degree to which students understand topics and concepts covered in a class period. Call for one 20 minutes into the lecture, or at the end of the class. The task should not be allowed to take more than 5 minutes of class time. If it is used in the middle of the lecture, then some questions might be: “Briefly explain the main concept discussed in this part of the lecture,” “Give an example of this concept or principle.” “How could this concept apply to [a possible next topic in the same lecture]?” “How does this idea relate to your experience with…?” When used at the end of the class period, the one-minute paper questions might be: “What are the most important things you learned in today’s lecture?” “What is the question on today’s topic that remains in your mind after this lecture?” Collect the responses. This is also a good way to take attendance if you request names. Requiring names might limit the honesty of students’ responses, however. Collected responses can be the basis of the first five minutes of the next class: you may need to revise a concept, give some examples, or clarify some topics. You may also wish to feature astute questions or share otherwise excellent examples.

Pause procedure is another constructive interruption. Have students pair-off or form small proximity groups to compare notes or results from a classroom exercise. Allow 2-3 minutes and ask what questions, if any, arose in their review.

Formative quizzes are quizzes that are not graded. Use them to evaluate students’ understanding of a topic. Use questions similar to the ones they will see on exams. Present the question with a power point slide or overhead. Responses could be a low-tech raising of hands, but iClickers are designed for this type of activity, and all Rensselaer students have one.
Focused listing is a useful reviewing technique. Ask students to list the concepts they learned in the past week or—in preparation for the midterm—half-semester. Focused listing also works in semester-end review. Along with major concepts, call for brief explanations of each and show on the blackboard how the concepts relate to each other. It is a good visual method to “see the big picture” and review the concepts learned so far.

Concept maps are similar to focused listing (above), but concept maps focus on a specific concept. Ask someone in class to write the concept on the blackboard. Other students can come up and add links to descriptions of the concept and its relationships to other studied concepts. Concept maps provide very good visual representations that stir students’ memories and unify learning for an exam. And they come away with a model to use for other topics and in other courses.

Misconceptions discovered in past semesters and brought forth in the present one can help you introduce a new concept by debunking erroneous notions that your students may harbor (good for Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Math, etc.). Ask the class: “What  is XXX (new concept)?” “Explain, or represent, what XXX is.” Encourage them to explain freely, no need for learned terminology. Ask the class to let everyone give their opinions and ideas about XXX. Don’t allow anyone to put down those who speak. Display all ideas, explanations, and words they use in their explanations. At last, present the correct information, and ask the class to analyze why and from where one would develop the listed misconceptions. Contrast the correct information with the most incorrect.

Ethical dilemma is useful when teaching around a controversial issue. Ask the class to offer pro and con arguments. You might ask half of the class to support the pro argument and the other half of class to challenge it. Occasionally, a heated discussion develops and seizes the full attention of the room. At times you might feel like you’re losing control of the class. If are not comfortable managing passions and calming down high spirits, then this is not the method for you.

One Word Journal (One Word Chapter) is useful when you would like to ensure that everyone does the readings. When you assign extra readings to the class, ask students (a class time ahead) to complete the One Word Chapter form for next time. The form pushes students to engage the assigned reading before the next class and come up with one word that best captures its essence. The word chosen need not necessarily be a concept from the piece. It could be any word the student thinks best represents its meaning. The student writes the word at the top of the form and, in the space below, rationalizes the choice, explaining too how the chosen word relates to topics previously studied in the course. In class ask students randomly to give their words and their explanations. Ask several students. Display all words. Then ask for volunteers to give their words. Add any new word to the displayed list. Start your lecture by developing and explaining the connections between posted words.

Note: More teaching strategies to be found in:
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

See also reference materials in the list of references.