3.4 Running classes: specific suggestions

 

Suggestions for running problem set classes

With thanks to Dr. Tony Whelan, quantitative study adviser in the Teaching and Learning Centre and prize-winning class teacher in a number of LSE departments.

Possible DOs

  1. In some sessions, it may be appropriate to discuss the theory and methods involved in a topic, at a fairly general level, and then to use that discussion as the basis for approaching the issues raised by homework exercises. 

On one pure mathematics course, homework revealed that students had considerable difficulty with an important idea in Algebra, namely that of a subgroup of a group. One successful class session involved spending half the time studying the relevant definitions and properties, with lots of examples of things that were, and that were not, subgroups of particular groups. This clarified the issues involved, and it was then possible to go back to the homework questions and clarify how the basic ideas applied in all of them. A similar approach worked with the idea of estimators on an elementary statistics course.

 

2. In most sessions it is fruitful to encourage students to read questions carefully and to absorb the information in the question. In many applied areas this can be motivated by the observation that, in the 'real world', real problems require considerable effort and thought to decide what is important about them, and what mathematical approach(es) might be fruitful. 

On a mathematical programming course, it often proved useful to summarise, on the board but in a different colour from the 'solution', those items of information that were given - often in convoluted form - in the question under discussion. On pure mathematics courses, it is frequently useful to display - again, in a different colour - key definitions, tests and criteria that are going to be applied in the solutions to one or more later questions.

 

3. In most sessions it is also fruitful to discuss the thought processes that students need to engage in while approaching how to solve a problem: at each stage, students need to be able to decide 'What should I do next?' 

In an elementary statistics course, there are strategies for calculating probabilities using two results known as Bayes' Formula and the Total Probability Formula. It is often useful, at an appropriate stage, to (re-)display those results, in a different colour from the 'solution', to remind students just why the next calculation is the appropriate one to carry out. Similarly, in explaining the Gaussian Elimination method of manipulating matrices, it can be useful to put coloured boxes around the key cells and blocks being used at various stages in the calculations.

 

4. It is frequently useful to motivate ideas and techniques by reference to real world examples. 

In an elementary statistics course, students meet the concept of 'outliers', that is to say values in a set of data that seem a long way away from the bulk of the known data. In real world situations, such anomalies can be due to, for instance, instrument errors. The discovery of the famous hole in the ozone layer, over Antarctica, illustrates both the importance and the difficulty of dealing with this problem: it was discovered using meteorological balloons, but then the question arose why meteorological satellites observing the same area earlier had not identified it first. It turned out that the computer programmes used to analyse the satellite data had been so written as to reject, as 'outlier' instrument errors, true readings which ought to have revealed the ozone hole ... but were ignored until it was discovered a different way.

 

5. Make sure that classes are well prepared, with a proper structure: some ideas about this can be found just above, and also in Section 3.2|.

6. Be prepared to repeat things, often from slightly different angles, and to summarise the ideas you are trying to get across, eg as bullet points.

7. Pay careful attention to whether students appear to be following what is being said: there are all sorts of clues that can help with this, involving body language and facial expressions as well as any explicit questions or interjections that they make.

8. Even when a class teacher is dominating the discussion (which will often be the case in problem solving classes), s/he should make sure that students are encouraged to yell out if something is unclear, or wrong.

9. One other technique that helps to involve students, even when a class teacher is dominating the discussion, is from time to time to ask something like 'Someone tell me what comes next'. This approach can be varied by asking particular students something similar, but whatever detailed approach may be used teachers need to be aware of the twin dangers of the 'pushy' student, who likes to show off how much s/he knows, intimidating or discouraging others, and of the shy or nervous student, who needs to be encouraged to respond in such situations.

Definite DON'Ts

  1. Don't just read out, or ask students to read, pre-printed solutions supplied by the teacher in charge.
  2. Don't 'skip' detailed points of reasoning on the grounds that they are 'easy' or 'obvious'.
  3. Don't go too fast.
  4. Don't be afraid to acknowledge errors when they happen.

Suggestions for running class discussions

The following are some of the common problems that can occur in classes and some ideas about how to cope with them:

  • The whole group is silent and unresponsive. Ask students to work in pairs to get people talking and energised.  Ask groups of four to discuss what could be done to make the group more lively and involving and then pool suggestions.
  • Individuals are silent and unresponsive. Use open, exploratory questions. Invite individuals in: 'I'd like to hear what Clive thinks about this.' Use 'buzz' groups (pairs or groups of three).
  • Sub-groups start forming with private conversations. Break them up with sub-group tasks. 'What is going on?' Self-disclosure: 'I find it hard to lead a group where ...'
  • The group becomes too deferential towards the teacher. Stay silent, throw questions back, open questions to the whole group. Negotiate decisions about what to do instead of making decisions unilaterally.
  • Discussion goes off the point and becomes irrelevant. Set clear themes or an agenda. Keep a visual summary of the topics discussed for everyone to see. Say: 'I'm wondering how this relates to today's topic.' Seek agreement on what should and should not be discussed.
  • A distraction occurs (such as two students arriving late). Establish group ground rules about behaviour such as late arrivals. Give attention to the distraction.
  • Students have not done the preparation. Clarify preparation requirements, making them realistic. Share what preparation has been undertaken at the start of each session.
  • Members do not listen to each other. Point out what is happening. Establish ground rules about behaviour.
  • Students do not answer when you ask a question. Use open questions, leave plenty of time. Use buzz groups. Ask students to write down their answers first and share with a neighbour.
  • Two students are very dominant. Use hand signals, gestures and body language. Support and bring in others. Give the dominant students roles to keep them busy (such as note-taker). Use structures that take away the audience. Think about how you position yourself. If you sit next to them rather than opposite them, it is harder for them to 'come in'. See if you are giving them too much 'non-verbal' encouragement, such as nods, eye contact and positive comments. You may need to break some social rules now and then!
  • Students complain about the seminar and the way you are handling it. Ask for constructive suggestions. Ask students who are being negative to turn their comments into positive suggestions. Ask for written suggestions at the end of the session. Agree to meet a small group afterwards.
  • Students reject the seminar discussion process and demand answers. Explain the function of seminars. Explain the demands of the assessment system. Discuss their anxieties.
  • The group picks on one student in an aggressive way. Establish ground rules. Ask 'What is going on?' Break up the group using pairs or small group activities.
  • Discussion focuses on one corner of the group and the rest stop joining in. Point out to the group what is happening. Look at the room layout, how the students are positioned and where you sit - see if physical re-organisation could make a difference to undesirable group dynamics and enhance discussion flow.

Adapted from materials produced by Dr Alan Booth (University of Nottingham) and Jean Booth (University of Coventry), in Enhancing Teaching Effectiveness in the Humanities and Social Sciences: participant guide (1997), UK Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, Sheffield, pp. 115-16.

Making the most of student presentations in class

There is a growing interest in UK higher education in helping undergraduates to develop their 'core skills'. These include communication skills, numeracy, ability to work with others, problem solving and use of information technology. Classes offer a huge potential for students to develop and improve core skills, and in particular, their oral communication skills both through informal class discussions and by giving formal presentations. To help students do this is, therefore, an important aspect of your work as a class teacher.

The Teaching and Learning Centre's Giving feedback on oral presentations| (available under “Notes of guidance”) provides useful guidance on running presentations in class and the key points are reproduced here:

 

Preparing students for class presentations

  • Discuss with students the overall purpose of student presentations both within the discipline and for their broader skills development.
  • Ensure that their presentations link to the class and/or the rest of the course.
  • Consider timing and format. For instance, keeping the presentation short is useful so that it does not dominate the class session but acts as a way of structuring the class – placing it halfway through the session for 10 minutes, with 5 minutes for the presentation and 5 minutes for questions – and limiting the use of PowerPoint to 4 or 5 slides at most or one side of A4 is a good discipline.
  • Discuss the feedback criteria with the class and, where appropriate, develop a customised feedback sheet (see Appendix 3 for an example). The Teaching and Learning Centre can work with you on this if useful.
  • Offer them visual aid advice, for instance good practice in using PowerPoint, or preparing handouts for other students in the class.
  • Suggest a meeting with you before the presentation. This can be useful in ensuring that the student has addressed the question and that the presentation is well integrated into the rest of the session.
  • Let the student/s know how they will be receiving feedback (office hours, feedback sheet, Moodle, in the class, audio feedback) and what elements of the presentation they will be given feedback on.

Running class presentations

  • Outline the structure of the session at the start, indicating when and how long the presentation will be and how it fits into the overall class plan.
  • Clarify what the role of the rest of the class is during the presentation/s. Will students ask questions after the presentation? Will they give peer feedback on all or some aspects of the presentation to the student presenting? 

 

Some of the advice in Giving a clear explanation in Section 3.3| can be readily applied in the student context. Talk to your students about how they might structure their arguments or prioritise the key points they wish to make. Help them to illustrate their talk with apt examples and to relate any new ideas or information to what has already been discussed in class. If your students are encouraged to use visual aids and/or handouts, it may also be desirable for you to offer guidance on this. Section 6 |in this handbook may be helpful to you in doing this.

Check also with the teacher responsible for your course, and look through the departmental programme handbooks and departmental public folders. Several departments now include guidance on seminar presentations in their documentation to students. You can usefully draw this to your students' attention. In addition, the Teaching and Learning Centre runs a series of study advice events on various aspects of seminar presentation and public speaking, and has a range of resources available on its Learning World Moodle course, several of which are available for class teachers to adapt to their own needs.

Many students use the opportunity of class presentations to learn how to use PowerPoint and operate the computer display equipment. You may wish to alert students to IT training on using PowerPoint. Equipment to enable classroom presentation is now available as standard in the majority of classrooms across the School; and where there is no such facility, you can book portable equipment from the AV Unit. However, the equipment set up does vary from room to room, so encourage students to have a trial run if they can, and be sure to check out how the equipment works yourself (contact the AV Unit for hands-on guidance if you need it).

Many students find presenting in class very stressful and for some it is particularly difficult (eg because of a disability, mental illness, or due to language difficulties). Encourage students to make you aware of such concerns, and either offer additional support if you feel able and have time, or point them to other support available in the School (eg Teaching and Learning Centre, Disability and Well-being Service, Language Centre).

Helping students to develop academic writing skills

There is clearly more to class teaching than simply packaging content and delivering it to the students. The School puts great importance placed on the students' abilities to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing. This section considers how to help support students with their academic writing skills. These come to the fore in the ways in which the students will be summatively assessed, eg through the essay and through written examination scripts. This is usually an area of particular difficulty for dyslexic students. It can also cause concerns for some students for whom English is a second or third language, and for students unused to the particular writing style expected in the UK HE system, which is often much more critical and analytical than they may be used to.

Class teachers can very usefully devote some of their teaching time to the support of these process skills and may want to encourage their students to discuss and review their academic writing abilities. The detail of marking and providing feedback on course work and essays is tackled in detail in Section 4. In addition, class teachers may wish to consider setting aside some class time to work with students on essay writing technique, peer critique and review of each other's work, and exam technique. Here are some examples of approaches to running classes to help students develop their writing skills used by recent class teachers.  

To help students get an idea of what we are looking for in essays, I ran a session a few weeks into the year where I gave the students an essay I'd written as an undergraduate which was on a relevant topic (I didn't tell them it was one of mine!). I asked them all to mark it against the departmental essay marking criteria, and we then discussed the grades they'd given it and comments they'd make about how to improve it. It helped the students get a clear idea of what was expected from them.

 

I got agreement from students that when they'd submitted their essays, I'd give written feedback on each, and then post up their essays and my comments (anonymously) on public folders. This meant each student could see the range of types of essays being written, and ways in which they could be improved. It took me time, but I think they gained a lot from it.

  

It is important to get the wording right when reporting findings of quantitative analyses. This shows that the student actually understands what s/he is doing. To help students with this, I pay special attention to the writing in their homework. I suggest better ways of presenting results and encourage them to look at the course pack and model answers for wording answers.

  

Last term in the revision class I asked the students to work in groups of three to tackle different past exam questions. I gave the same question to two or three groups so that they could compare their different approaches. The focus of the class was to look at how exam questions could be read, interpreted and answered differently. Our discussions were about the process of answering the questions and not on the detail of the subject.

 The Teaching and Learning Centre offers support for academic writing skills development through its study advice events, the Learning World Moodle site and a limited number of one-to-one sessions. See Section 10| for contact details.

Helping students to prepare for their examinations

At the School there is a strong focus on end-of-course written examinations and your students will be keen to maximise their performance in these assessments. You can do much to help in their efforts and you may wish to use some class time to work with students on exam preparation.

You do need to inform yourself about the form that your students' examinations will take. How many questions do they need to answer? Do they have any choice? Has the exam format changed since last year?, etc. All exam papers for the past three and more years are available through the School's website at https://library-2.lse.ac.uk/protected-exam/index.html|

Your students may find it useful to work through old exam questions in class. You can use these in revision classes in a number of different ways. For example, you could ask students to work in small groups and answer two or three questions in class and ask them to jointly present their views for discussion or you could set a 'mock' exam where students work independently on questions in class under exam conditions, etc.

You can mark your students' answers and give them constructive feedback but you could also invite students to mark each other's answers and encourage them to apply the assessment criteria used in the department. Such formative assessment can be a very powerful teaching tool and many students gain a great deal from making and defending judgements about the quality of their own answers, those of a peer or those presented in an anonymous answer (from last year) that you keep for teaching purposes. This can be an active and engaging way to help your students understand the quality and standards of work required by your department. It will often prompt discussion and questioning about the detail of the exam. For example 'How long should my answer be?', 'How many references should I include?', 'Can I refer to my own experience?', etc.

You may also be able to ask the teacher responsible for the course for common 'errors' that students make when tackling his/her questions and discuss these during your class.

If you are teaching first year students, it may be helpful to discuss approaches to revision with your class and encourage them to draw up realistic plans and timetables. It is probably worth reminding new students that most people work more productively in (short) timed bursts and when they are not tired, hungry or upset/worried. Your students can obtain advice and support by attending the exam preparation sessions offered by the Teaching and Learning Centre towards the end of Lent Term (see its Development and training page at lse.ac.uk/tlc/development|), or by booking a one-to-one session with an experienced study adviser. You can also guide your students to look at the information and advice provided on the Teaching and Learning Centre's Moodle course Learning World, whose materials you are welcome to adapt and use with your own classes.

After the exams, you may wish to contact your students to find out how they did in their assessments as the department may not automatically inform you of your students' performance.

Here are some tips for exams. What would you add?

  • Divide your time between the number of questions and try and stick to it.
  • Do your best question first.
  • Read the question very carefully, underlining key words.
  • Don't jump straight in - spend a few minutes noting down the most important points you wish to present and putting them in a sensible order.
  • Re-read the question before writing your conclusion so that you can make sure that you relate your previous discussion clearly to the question that was actually asked!  

Starting such a list and inviting the class to add to it may be a useful way of encouraging all your students to plan carefully for their assessments.

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How I run my classes: examples from GTAs

This section gives a range of practical examples, tips and suggestions from current and recent LSE class teachers.

  • Using student presentations: an example from International Relations

My department has very clear and detailed guidelines on what is expected of class teachers and I don't think I can change the format. The class 'aims and objectives' are given by the department and the topics covered support those given in the lectures. The students must each give a presentation at least once during the course, but it is up to the teacher to set the standards for these and organise their delivery. This year I allowed the students the freedom to design, prepare and deliver their own presentation. This did lead to a wide variety in the quality in the presentations. Some of the reading lists are a bit overwhelming and students needed some help to prioritise their reading and focus on key texts. I have noticed a great variation in the three classes I teach. The groups are very different and my 'quiet' Monday morning class is the most difficult to run. I have found it helps to give the students a short list of the questions that will be discussed that session before the presentation starts. This is to focus their attention on the most relevant issues and to diminish the chances that they will become less attentive during the presentation and just wait for my final summary. In a class where shy, introverted students would like to participate but find it difficult to do so, it is a good idea to ask them to discuss the questions in pairs or threes before starting the whole class discussion. I also encourage the shy students to get feedback from their small group. This does seem to give them confidence and makes it more likely that they will take a more active role in upcoming sessions.

  • Debate and discussion: an example from Law

In my classes, I divide the students into two groups that usually consist of six students per group. I prepare two essay questions, one giving a particular standpoint and the other with the opposite standpoint. The idea behind the two questions is that each group must defend their particular standpoint. I ask all the students individually to pre-prepare four or five points that will illustrate their argument. At the beginning of the class I leave the students for about 10-15 minutes to discuss the question they have been allocated and to come up with four or five points collectively to argue their standpoint. I have found that this works much better if I leave the room as the students are less inhibited and more inclined to talk. This also works well because even if a particular student has not prepared, he or she can get some ideas from the other students. I have also observed an additional benefit - the other students pressure the student who does not prepare to do some work as the rest tire of someone who consistently does not do any work themselves. We then come together as a whole group and debate both questions. I summarise at the end with a vote on which of the questions and standpoints they most agreed with and I highlight key learning points.

  • Experimenting with a simulation exercise: an example from International Relations

I wanted to use a simulation in one of my classes this year as I have attended very useful, but longer running, simulated exercises myself. I have found them to be very helpful in understanding decision-making processes and in developing my own skills of negotiation and debate. However, I must stress that this is just one class from a set of more traditional, student presentation based classes. The preparation time cost for this exercise would preclude the widespread use of this method to many more of my classes. The simulation I wrote was text-based and asked students to work individually or in pairs to prepare their allocated 'country's' position in an EU decision-making forum. I found that the students really did prepare well and all but one student reported that they enjoyed the simulation exercise and felt that they had gained from it. The students were asked to put forward their country's viewpoint following a written brief and to negotiate with their peers - I let this part of the class run for about 40 minutes. I then concluded the class by describing the outcomes of the 'real' meeting on which the simulation was based. I also tried to draw out the main learning points for the students, not only in terms of the knowledge gained, but also in terms of their skills development and their greater appreciation of how negotiated settlements are reached internationally.

  • Working through the problem set: an example from Economics

My subject is very quantitative and my students usually have six numerical problems to solve each week. They are given these before the class and are expected to have tried to solve them on their own before we meet. In practice some have and some haven't. I have found that the students want me to go through the solutions to all the questions on the board but I am told by the lecturer that these classes should be interactive and a place where students think and can ask questions. There isn't enough time to go through all the solutions either. So I begin by asking which problems the students have had difficulty with and write up a list of questions on the board. I then use this to structure the class. I try to get the students to answer my questions as I work through the problems. I usually sit next to the visualiser and write as I talk on a piece of paper. This way I am facing the students and going at the right pace for them to take notes. Some of the students are under-confident and I never pick on students to answer my questions as this can cause embarrassment - and they hate it. Occasionally I ask for a volunteer to take us through their solution on the board and I may try doing a 'spot the mistake' solution on a handout in one of my classes this year to give a bit of variety.

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