Tips from the McMaster Community

How do I maintain the attention of a large group of students (450+) while at the same time stimulating critical thinking?
Ann Herring, Department of Anthropology

One way I break up the lecture tedium is to offer, by way of example, a problem that I have had to solve in my own research. I ask the students to put their pens down (this is vital!) and show them on the overhead projector the data that I had to work with, and the conundrum, noting that at this point there is no right or wrong answer - we just want to explore every conceivable avenue and not overlook anything. I'll often ask students to give me the silliest possibilities first (humour helps a lot here). This seems to encourage a game atmosphere, allay some of the fears of public humiliation, and get the students involved in the process. When we have arrayed the possibilities, we then work through a process of elimination to arrive at a solution. Sometimes I offer a prize, such as a coffee or doughnut, to the students who proposed the correct solution and the most unusual incorrect solution. I then note that it took the class about 30 minutes, working together, to solve a problem that it took me, toiling away in my study on my own, much longer to figure out.

What do the students get from this exercise? They discover the power of collaboration and the need in problem-solving to explore all possibilities no matter how inane (sometimes the seemingly crazy answer turns out to be the correct solution). I have found, too, that even though almost no one takes notes during the process, the students remember the example extremely well and it often shows up as illustrative material on their exams.

What does the instructor get from this type of exercise? It's fun, a good way to bring your own research into the classroom, and a great opportunity to have the students actually work with you in arriving at the solution. In big classes, it is so hard to feel a connection with the students, but this type of exercise can create an exciting dialogue.

Back ArrowBack