CRLT Blog

Large courses present some distinct challenges to teachers and students. How, for example, can hundreds of students practice challenging concepts simultaneously? And how can instructors in large courses gain insights about the learning of all of their many students? 

CRLT has sponsored several faculty learning communities focused on effective strategies for teaching in large courses. Faculty members learn together about pedagogical tools and technologies that facilitate student learning and then develop concrete applications for them in their specific courses. In this 6-minute video, one participant, psychology professor Pamela Davis-Kean, highlights her use of Google Forms to provide students practice with key skills and difficult concepts in an upper-level course of 150 students. She recommends it as a flexible, easy-to-learn technology that can enhance student interaction and engagement in a large course setting.

For more details about Davis-Kean's use of Google Forms, see this page. You can find more examples of U-M instructors creatively using online tools to enhance student collaboration and learning in our searchable list. And you can click on the "large course" tab below for more examples and resources specifically related to such classes.

Photo of students taking notes on laptops and notebookIs the pen mightier than the keyboard? Based on a recent study, when it comes to notetaking in class, the answer to this question might be “yes.” In their 2014 article on student notetaking, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared students who took handwritten notes with those who used a laptop. Their findings, which held over several different experimental settings, indicate that longhand notes lead to better learning. (U-M users can get the full article here.)

In tests given immediately after a lecture, recall of factual information was equal for both modes of notetaking. However, students remembered significantly greater amounts of conceptual information after taking handwritten notes. When tests were delayed by a week (a situation that more closely mirrors a classroom setting), the hand-writers performed significantly better on both factual and conceptual test questions.

Mueller and Oppenheimer explain that, although laptop notetakers record significantly more words, they do so in a verbatim fashion, without much cognitive processing. Those who write by hand can record fewer words and therefore must synthesize and summarize, rather than simply transcribe, the lecture. When tests occur immediately, capturing a large amount of verbatim information leads to good factual recall, but less ability to retain concepts. However, the shallow processing that characterizes laptop notetaking seems to be detrimental in the long run for both factual and conceptual recall.

These findings could well be counterintuitive for students who feel better able to follow lectures by typing notes. Especially given the large body of research showing the power of technology to distract students, instructors might want to proactively help students maximize the usefulness of technology while minimizing its potentially negative effects. Here are some suggestions:

As we move into winter term, with its mix of intense academic demands and challenging weather, it's a good time for instructors to prepare to respond or reach out to students experiencing mental health challenges. Whether they are grappling with anxiety, depression, or other sorts of distress, students' mental heath struggles often become apparent to teachers when they take a toll on their academic work. And students in distress sometimes turn to teachers for help because they see them as their most immediate support network.

As U-M’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) states in their guide for instructors on Helping Students in Distress, "your role can be a positive and crucial one in identifying students who are in distress and assisting them in finding the appropriate resources." 

What should you do if you know or suspect a student is in need of your assistance? Detailed guidance can be found in the CAPS guide above or at the University's Mental Health Resources webpage for faculty and staff. In general they recommend, if a student comes to you, that you listen attentively and without judgment. You can help the student develop an action plan for addressing their main concerns, especially with coursework, but remember that it's not your role or responsibility to provide professional help for students facing mental health challenges. You can support students by referring them to relevant campus resources. Depending on the circumstances, these might include:

What are effective ways to get to know my students and create a positive learning environment from the very beginning of the term? How can I pique students' curiosity about the course material? How can I set student expectations for active engagement in class?

Students in a classroomThese are common questions as teachers prepare for the first days of class, an important time for setting the tone for what is to come in the term. CRLT links to many resources that can help faculty and GSIs think carefully about getting the most out of the first days. These include research on why classroom rapport is useful for student learning, and specific strategies for building relationships and communities in the early days and weeks of a course. Other resources provide suggestions for introducing course material and communicating expectations. Find more first days resources on this list, or click on the tags below for pages that include links to materials we use in our new teacher orientation programs. 

Other CRLT resources about inclusive teaching provide specific strategies for ensuring that you foster learning environments that include and enable all of your students from the very beginning of the term. Inclusive teaching can begin before you ever walk into a classroom, as emphasized by these pages on course design and syllabus design.

As always, CRLT consultants are also available to work one-on-one with instructors. We're here to help you get your classes off to a great start.