Engaging Students in Large Lectures

How a Harvard Professor brought intimate discussion and student engagement to a large introductory course at the University of California, Davis. 

After teaching at Harvard University for seven years, Dr. Stacey Combes was excited to pursue tenure at the University of California, Davis. But transferring to UC-Davis meant trading intimate, discussion-driven classes for amphitheaters filled with hundreds of non-majors. Even with years of teaching experience and a number of prestigious awards for teaching undergraduates, Dr. Combes knew that connecting with more than 400 students and keeping the class engaged would be a challenge. Especially since this was her first time teaching Animal Behavior.

“I was really just trying to scramble and figure out what to do and to talk to colleagues to get advice,” says Dr. Combes. “I had a bunch of colleagues who teach [Animal Behavior] give me their lecture notes. A lot of the older professors who have more experience in the topic, their lectures would just be a picture and three words and I am like, ‘What am I supposed to say? What book do I use? What do I cover in this course?’”  

Eventually, Dr. Combes organized a set of lecture notes, picked a book and was ready to tackle teaching an auditorium full of students. But Dr. Combes wasn’t finished preparing. She wanted to move beyond simply presenting lecture slides and preparing students to for tests. She wanted students to understand how Animal Behavior impacted the world and their lives. Combes decided to add in-class activities and discussion to encourage students to take ownership of their learning and further explore the subject. A few activities Dr. Combes used in class included an innovative round of rock-paper-scissors to help students make predictions about fighting strategies in game theory models and an experiment with different sized piles of candy to teach optimal foraging models. However, Combes wasn’t sure how to structure discussion in such a large course. 

“Any course that big with no discussion, it sucks. I had to fill that void where they don’t get to talk about the material or think about it much beyond studying and lecture,” says Dr. Combes. “[Incorporating discussion] is partly to get them to think beyond the material and be curious, [but] if you get the right dynamic going, one student in discussion will explain something to another and that’s always the best way to learn; if you can explain something to someone else.”

A month before her 2017 Animal Behavior course, Dr. Combes discovered Packback. She implemented the online discussion board as part of a participation grade and required students to ask one question and respond to two each week. Dr. Combes was excited to see if Packback could foster an intimate discussion and help non-major students make connections between the subject matter and their lives.  Her hope was that by providing students with an open-form to discuss Animal Behavior, they would apply what they learned in class to discussions that were of interest to them. And to Dr. Combes’ surprise, that’s exactly what students did.

Dr. Combes’ community was filled with a range of questions. Combes noticed that students were processing the material and relating Animal Behavior concepts to other courses. There were questions from psychology majors asking, “Can animals be depressed?” “Have animals ever taken their own lives intentionally?” and “Do animals experience mental illnesses like humans do?” Pre-agriculture and livestock management majors asked, “Do animals in slaughterhouse have a sense of eminent fate?” A few students even had a discussion about paleontology and wondered, “How paleontologists could learn about [a] dinosaur’s behavior just by looking at a fossil?”

“What I liked about [Packback] was that you could tell that students had certain interests. It was kind of cool that they could follow their own curiosity,” says Dr. Combes.

Jennifer Tsverov, a junior from Dr. Combes’ class found that discussing concepts with her classmates sparked an interest in Animal Behavior and pushed her to better understand the material. As a neurobiology major, Tsverov wasn’t expecting to enjoy learning about animals, but found the discussion with her peers to be an exciting way to engage with the content.“[Dr. Combes’ Animal Behavior class] ended up being my favorite class,” says Tsverov. “I definitely think [Packback] helped outside of what we were learning in class. I think [the material] stuck better than whatever I memorized in class because I went out of the way to learn everything about [the subject] to come up with a nice answer [for Packback].”

Lupita Amaton, an Animal Behavior major from the same class also enjoyed discussing material on Packback. With plans on attending vet school, Amaton used Packback to gain insight on the moral and ethical intersections between science and animals, such as the use of live animals in scientific studies. 

“I asked questions because I was curious what someone on the other side would say,” says Amaton. “Asking these questions helped me apply what I was learning in class to the real world because I wasn’t just thinking about the material in class anymore. I was still thinking about the material [after class], processing it and [not] just forgetting it once I walk out of lecture.”

With such a positive experience and seeing the potential for growth, Dr. Combes is excited to continue using Packback in future courses.

“I think [Packback] was really useful for me,” says Dr. Combes. “I really like teaching Animal Behavior, but we don’t have much we can do with 400 students. [Using Packback] is about making them curious and thinking about the material [and] it seems to me, looking at their questions, they really got into it. They were really asking things they were curious about. Particularly for classes I have now, they’re never really putting anything in their own words. They’re just reading information and trying to reassemble it. I think it’s nice [that on Packback] students are able to say things in their own words [and] really understand it.”

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