The first time I taught a 100-student course, I felt overwhelmed by how different it was from a 20-student class. Suddenly, I had five times as many names to remember. Five times as many papers to grade. Five times as many emails to answer. It was an adjustment, but with time I discovered new tricks for learning names, I set boundaries for myself on answering emails and I moved from a discussion-based class to more lectures and group activities. After experimenting for a few semesters, I finally felt comfortable.
Then I was assigned a 400-student class.
The class I was asked to teach was an introductory Communication Studies course. It was primarily freshmen, but being a General Education requirement, the students came from all majors across campus. Since everyone communicates, students easily relate to the topics, but they always have questions. Students are curious about best practices, love to hear stories and examples, and want others’ opinions. Exploring these student questions was an impactful part of my smaller lectures, but I was concerned that wouldn’t be possible with 400 students.
While prepping for my class, I looked for a solution that would give students the opportunity to ask questions and interact. One tool I came across was Packback, an online discussion board designed to spark curiosity by requiring students to ask and respond to open-ended questions. With Packback I was able to facilitate discussion and let students get involved, despite the physical and educational constraints of our enormous lecture hall.
Supporting Engagement in the 400-Student Course
I used Packback as a weekly assignment for my Tuesday communication studies course and assigned 10% of the final grade for student participation. Students were assigned to ask one question and answer two questions on Packback by Monday evening each week. I set the deadline the day before class, so students would be prepared for Tuesday’s lecture. During the week, my TAs and I would read the questions and answer as many as we could, typically citing research or tying the question back to things we had discussed in class. Because I was lucky enough to have several TAs, I asked each to answer at least five questions per week and to feature at least one; however, with a larger teacher-to-student ratio, I would have relied heavily on Packback’s artificial intelligence to automatically feature posts.
Before every class, I would take a few minutes to skim Packback to look for themes in the students’ questions and then find creative ways to incorporate the questions into my lecture. In about 10-15 minutes per week, I could get guidance on what topics to cover and to see what was or wasn’t making sense to students. The sheer size of the class prevented me from having the kind of rapport I generally have with my students but with Packback, I developed a routine that changed how I think about student engagement in a large lecture. Here are some tips for using Packback in a large lecture that helped me save time and encourage engagement in my students.
Tips for Using Packback in Large Lectures
Finding Themes in the Packback Community
Spending time each week to scan the community helped me develop a sense of what the students were interested in or what was still confusing. I would quickly scroll through topics and questions my TAs had featured but also relied on the search bar to see if any students had focused on a particular topic from the reading. Using Packback was a great way to get feedback on what topics were of interest to the students since the size of the class prevented group discussion, and it helped me to keep my lectures relevant to the students.
Using Student Questions in Lecture
I took note of trends in the Packback questions and used them as feedback on how to steer my lecture content. For example, one week we discussed public speaking and at least five students asked for advice on the best ways to prepare. I showed all of these questions on screen to reassure the students that these fears were commonly shared—and then deviated from our textbook to talk about my own experiences with public speaking and what advice I could offer. Even better, including screenshots with the poster’s name was a way to highlight excellent student contributions without the fear or embarrassment of raising their hand in front of 400 peers.
Further, I would use the questions I found as segues into new topics: when I could show how a student’s question could be answered with course content, it helped all of the students make a connection between their lives and what we were learning. By personalizing the content to the questions that mattered to them, I was able to make the class more meaningful both for the students and for myself.
Joining Student Conversations
I particularly enjoyed finding ways to facilitate interaction between students and to answer their questions more personally. If too many students were agreeing with each other in a response thread, I would happily play devil’s advocate and challenge them to think differently, or I would respond and offer links to research that supported my point. In a classroom that otherwise constrained physical and social contact, Packback provided a virtual space for students across the class to interact with each other on their own time and terms, and for me to answer their questions more directly.
Using Questions to Facilitate Student Reflection
I relied upon the questions students asked on Packback to encourage reflection. I chose particularly thought-provoking questions and used them to spark discussion through think-pair-share activities or individual written responses. When we studied cultural differences, a student asked about the impact that a particular cultural difference (time orientation) might have on hiring decisions. Asking students to share their opinions revealed the complexity of the issue and how differently people felt about it; we were able to weigh pros and cons and think of the real-world impact of our biases.
Teaching a large lecture class can be daunting. It’s a challenge to reframe the way one teaches, particularly when (like me) a professor is accustomed to engaging students through in-class discussion. Without Packback, I would have felt terribly disconnected from all of the students in this course; Packback enabled me to have one-on-one interactions with students I honestly probably couldn’t pick out of the crowd otherwise. Finally, Packback’s administrative tools made managing participation for a large number of students simple and quick. I am grateful for the ways it allowed me to interact with my students and for how it helped to foster their curiosity about the subject beyond the walls of our classroom.
Written by Dr. Stephanie Tikkanen, Assistant Professor at Ohio University School of Communication Studies.
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