As an educator, I have a few aspirations that guide my teaching. I want my students to be active and engaged learners who think deeply and critically about course material. I also want them to see the real-life implications of the concepts and theories I teach, and to take chances in applying what they learn to events in their daily lives. These aspirations are particularly appropriate in the large class I teach, Management 311 - Introduction to Management and Organizational Behavior, because one of my primary objectives is for students to develop practical competencies in working with and managing other people. It is not adequate that students simply learn about something - what also matters is the extent to which they develop an understanding of what to do with what they learn.
Management 311 is the only people-management class required of all business majors in Western Washington University's College of Business and Economics. It also draws students from other majors across the university. Due to the high demand - 900+ students per academic year - and current resource constraints, offering large sections of the class is a necessity. The class is broken into five discussion sections (a.k.a., labs). The full class meets for lecture twice a week and each lab of 42 students meets once a week in a smaller classroom. Each year, I partner with an MBA student teaching assistant. With my guidance, this individual teaches the labs and assists me with grading and other administrative tasks.
In sharing what I have learned about how to effectively plan and teach a large class, I want to make it clear that I am not a dynamic speaker. While I have gotten to the point where my oratory skills are not a liability, I am not nor will I ever be the kind of presenter whose mere presence can fire up an audience. I highlight this fact to make the point that one's personality and natural ability need not stand in the way of being successful in a large classroom. While it is true that some of us may need to work harder than others on our stage presence, this is not the key to effectiveness. As I see it, effectiveness is based much more on things that anyone can do.
An overarching lesson that I teach in Management 311 is also a principle at the core of my teaching philosophy: managing people is not really about managing the people themselves; it is about "managing the context."1 This principle is derived from the reality that we cannot really make others do something. A manager may want her employees to work harder, for instance, but she cannot directly control whether this will happen. This principle is true in teaching as well. For instance, though I want students to think deeply and critically, I cannot make them think this way. What managers and teachers can control is the context - the environment within which the employees or students work. Though people make their own decisions, we can influence those decisions via the context. In recognizing this truth, we are left with these key questions:
The aspirations I listed above are the things for which I am hoping. In Management 311, I work to create an environment that will increase the likelihood that these aspirations will be realized. My assumption when I first began teaching this class was that a large class, by its very nature, provides exactly the wrong kind of environment for my purposes. I felt I would have no choice but to abandon my ideals to make the class work. I found, however, that despite the limitations and constraints inherent in teaching large classes, this context can be managed in ways to create a surprisingly rich, engaging, and fulfilling learning environment for the students and the instructor.
In large classes, there is an inherent distance (psychological and physical) between the students and the instructor, which can undermine students' motivation and sense of personal responsibility. High expectations help to counteract this tendency. But while having high expectations is important, in isolation, it does not address the real issue. What matters more is ensuring that one's high expectations are clearly and consistently conveyed, and also giving students every opportunity to achieve those expectations.
My expectations are reflected in the aspirations stated above. To effectively convey them, I first try to separate my expectations from grades. On the first day of class, I let students know that I consider an A to be exceptional while a C is average. After that, I avoid bringing grades into discussions of expectations. Instead, I set aside class time early in the term to talk about expectations on a more substantive level. I go over them as I would any other set of important course concepts—I state what they are, I explain the rationale behind them, and I relate them to specific components of the class. For instance, I describe what the expectations mean in terms of what they will be asked to do on exams and other assignments.
In addition to stating and explaining my expectations, I make choices about how to structure and teach the class with the aim of reinforcing these expectations. (This alignment between my words and actions is critical for showing students that I take my expectations seriously.) For instance, instead of trying to cover everything in the lectures, I focus each lecture on a small number of concepts. Narrowing the focus allows me to spend more time providing vivid examples in a variety of formats (e.g., videos, cases, websites) that bring concepts to life and help students think more deeply about what they are learning. I further facilitate this by asking open-ended questions about how course concepts relate to the specifics of the examples, and I find that students are willing to answer such questions despite the size of the class.
My exams include essay-style questions that ask students to apply course concepts to various real-life situations. Though grading is a challenge in a class of this size, I feel that the benefits of this exam format outweigh the time costs. It encourages students to study and engage with the material in ways that are consistent with my expectations. And reading their answers is a critical form of communication with my students that allows me to see for myself what they are (and aren't) learning. This is particularly important in a large class that has limited opportunities for two-way communication. I make a concerted effort to encourage students to communicate with me in more direct ways as well. I do this via an online discussion forum devoted to student feedback and I ask for feedback in class. The solicitation of feedback works particularly well when I ask about something specific (e.g., an issue from a previous class's end-of-term evaluations).
The use of a team project further reinforces my expectations because it gives all students, regardless of their previous work experience, an opportunity to apply course concepts to a real-life mini organization. All of the concepts and theories that I cover in Management 311 are relevant to teamwork and so it is not just the content of the team project that is important, but also the experience of working in a team. My teaching assistant plays an invaluable role in helping me manage the team project in the labs - it would be difficult to effectively manage a team project in a large class like this without such support.
Student feedback alerted me to the fact that my expectations and the supporting structure of the class are not what students are used to in a class of this size. Though many students cited this in a positive light, a number of them expressed concerns. (Ambivalent feedback is common in large classes due to the size and diversity of the enrollment.) Instead of making sweeping changes, I responded by more clearly communicating my expectations so that students are better prepared from the first day of class. The simple motto behind the changes I made is "No surprises." I do not want students to have to waste any time or energy stressing about uncertainties or worrying about what is to come.
To minimize surprises, I also make full use of the course syllabus and web page (created via Blackboard). My syllabus is a carefully worded document that provides a detailed overview of the class, the assignments, the grading system, course policies, and my expectations. It also includes a detailed course schedule to which I closely adhere. The schedule lists all due dates, and I provide regular in-class reminders about these dates as the term progresses. The syllabus is posted on Blackboard and I refer to it regularly in class. While it is thorough, its length does discourage some students from reading it. I therefore review different portions of it during the first few lectures. I also present much of the same information elsewhere on Blackboard. This breaks the information into smaller chunks, making it more likely that students will read it. Of course, communicating the same basic information via multiple channels risks sending mixed messages. With 200+ students, the risk of such miscommunication is high. This approach therefore necessitates close attention to detail.
Most students come into the class expecting multiple-choice tests and are thus surprised by the exam format. Even though I used to describe the exam format early in the quarter, some were still taken off guard on the day of the first exam, and many others were surprised to find that their usual methods of studying did not help them perform well on essay-style exam questions. I asked students for feedback about these issues and now I do the following: First, I provide them with study tips, essentially teaching them ways of reading and studying that will help them achieve the level of understanding I expect of them (see Exam Advice). I review these in class and post them online. I also provide sample exam questions via Blackboard, and I give students the opportunity to post answers to these questions on a discussion forum. This gives me an opportunity to provide consequence-free feedback for the whole class to see in advance of the first exam.
Another surprise that I try to mitigate has to do with the team project. While the team experience itself is an important pedagogical tool, it takes effort to help students actively engage with this experience and learn from it. Therefore, as with the exams, I set aside class time to provide an overview of the project and to discuss teamwork more generally. My teaching assistant provides additional guidance and support to teams in the labs, focusing not just on the content of the project, but also on the teamwork process itself. (See Team Suggestions, Team Presentation Grading Rubric, and Team Contract.)
Although a large class limits an instructor's ability to get to know individual students, this reality also lends itself to some course policies that simplify class management. One policy is that attendance in my class is NOT mandatory. I make this clear to students on the first day of class. There are indirect incentives for coming to class such as being better prepared for exams, but there are no punishments for missing class. In some ways, I even make it easy for students to miss class (e.g., I post most lecture slides and other course materials online). In a large classroom, it is challenging enough to engage students who want to be there, let alone those who attend solely out of fear of punishment. Allowing students to choose whether or not to come to class makes it more likely that those who do attend will be truly and fully present.
The impersonal nature of the class also lends itself to a no-excuses policy. Apart from absences sanctioned by another authority on campus (e.g., official emergency leaves of absence, travelling student athletes, etc.), I do not take excuses into account when due dates are missed. This policy establishes a standard of fairness that students find acceptable. This, of course, depends on my clearly stating this policy up front, explaining the reasoning behind it, and enforcing it consistently. When I do enforce it, students seem satisfied to know they are being held to the same standards as everyone else in the class. (See Syllabus.)
Management 311, like any large class, takes place in a large auditorium with a stage and giant screen at the front of the room. The venue is thus suggestive of a performance, and I find that, like it or not, this is exactly what many students expect. As I suggested above, I have no interest in turning the process of teaching into a one-person show starring me - such an approach would not play to my strengths, nor would it help me achieve my aspirations. Instead, I try to shift the attention off of me and onto a number of different "supporting characters," including the students themselves. I do this by showing video clips (e.g., movies, TV shows, news segments, web videos, etc.), inviting guest speakers, playing games, using interactive activities, and initiating discussions. In this way, I become more of a master of ceremonies who provides transitions (often in the form of lectures) between various events and who facilitates discussions.
When I do lecture, I use PowerPoint slides. I am not a visually creative person, but I do make an effort to ensure that the slides are attractive, organized, clear, and concise. In addition to providing information via bullet points, I try to provide information visually so as to appeal to different learning styles. I also make an effort to provide an ongoing narrative from one lecture to the next that reminds students where we have been and foreshadows where we are going so that I can put where we are into a broader context. In terms of what I say, I give a lot of examples, I ask open-ended questions, and I use humor where appropriate. I continue to work on improving my inflection, pausing for emphasis, and getting down off the stage from time to time to overcome some of the distance between the students and myself. Finally, I also try to bridge the psychological/emotional distance by allowing myself to be somewhat vulnerable. I let students know a little bit about who I am and what I think, and I'm not afraid to make fun of myself.
The feedback I receive suggests that my approach is effective. Students regularly praise the organization of the class, the examples I give, and the fact that they "actually enjoy coming to class." A number of students note that this is their favorite class, and I also often hear that students either recommended the class to others or decided to take the class as a result of a friend's recommendation. Current and former students also often let me know that what they learned in the class has benefitted them at work and elsewhere; to me this is the most rewarding feedback of all. Here are two recent examples of student feedback:
"I thought the class was great! I really loved how organized the class was and how we knew exactly what was expected of us. I loved how Jason incorporated video clips to extend our knowledge of the material."
"I have over five years of management experience and I honestly thought there was nothing I could learn from your class that I didn't already know. I was mistaken. You did a great job outlining the material and making your expectations extremely clear. I enjoyed coming to your lectures because you have a gift for speaking and regardless of the material, I was tuned in because of how you relay the message. I've only had a couple teachers that not only knew the material they were teaching, but also knew how to get it across to the students. I'll be taking away more out of this class than I ever expected to."
I am proud of the success I have had with Management 311, but I also recognize that there are areas for improvement. Although most students are positive about the class as a whole, I know that some individual lectures are more dynamic and engaging than others, and so I continue to experiment with different ways of presenting particular topics. Another challenge has to do with keeping current. The business environment is in constant flux, with individual organizations sometimes going from success to failure almost overnight. I spend time every quarter searching for new examples and making sure the ones I continue to use are still relevant. Assessment is also a challenge in a class of this size. I strongly believe in the value of essay-style exams, but this makes grading quite challenging. I experiment with different numbers of exams and various exam formats (e.g., I am now using a hybrid format that is 40% multiple choice and 60% essay). The grading that I delegate to the teaching assistant (TA) also presents challenges. There is subjectivity in the homework assignments and team presentations (which the TA is responsible for grading), and I get mixed feedback from students about the fairness of this process. In addition to improving the grading rubrics I give to the TA, I must also coach the TA each year to help with the communication of his/her expectations to students. Finally, I am working to broaden my professional network so that I can bring more guest speakers to the class.
I would like to acknowledge a few individuals: Jane Dutton and Lloyd Sandelands (my mentors), Matthew Liao-Troth (the architect of the current format of MGMT 311), and the three wonderful TAs I have had the privilege of working with - Dan Batchelor, Evan Binkley, and Lauren Bell.
Footnote1 Stayer, R. (1990). How I learned to let my workers lead. Harvard Business Review, 68 (6), 66-83.