Having problems delivering lectures to a large number of students? The mind is a fickle thing and, says Harriet Swain, if your audience is losing interest or simply can't hear you, you need to mix it up a little
Can they hear you at the back? CAN THEY HEAR YOU AT THE BACK? If you could hear yourself think, you'd begin to wonder. You also suspect that even if those distant students can hear you, they have no idea what you're talking about. It sounds like large classes might not suit your teaching style.
How about trying to make classes smaller? The key to dealing with overwhelming numbers of students, according to Shirley Earl, head of learning and teaching development at Napier University, is to break them down into "smaller, dynamic units".
Breaking groups down is particularly helpful in practical subjects where you may have access to assistants, such as postgraduate students or demonstrators, so long as you are careful about monitoring quality.
"Traditionally, universities gave the same kit to every student and they all did the same experiment," she says. "Now, instead, you can work it like a training circuit so you have, say, ten experiments or practicals to be done in the course of a semester but in any week only 10 per cent of the class will be doing the same experiment."
The advantage of this system is not only that the university saves on kit but that it encourages discussion between students, and helps them to see how all the experiments contribute to the whole picture.
Earl suggests bringing all the groups together for plenary sessions in which they have the opportunity to share their experiences. Her view is that varying teaching structure is essential if you want to avoid boring your class. "You can get facts across pretty fast in a lecture," she says.
"This means you can free up time for creativity and exploration."
Phil Race, part-time senior academic staff development officer at Leeds University and author of 2,000 Tips for Lecturers , says you should be thinking at the beginning of a session not about what you will be doing for the next 50 minutes, but about what your students will be doing. He suggests building in three to four distinct changes of activity for them, such as looking through handouts, talking to their neighbour about something you have put up on the screen, multiple-choice questions and so on. "Remember that human concentration spans are very fickle," he warns.
"Unless you really keep their minds engaged they will be thinking of all sorts of other things. To keep the whole attention of a large group isn't easy."
Annie Trapp, deputy director of the Higher Education Academy psychology network, agrees: "The brain is designed to respond to changes in the environment not the status quo, so it is important to refocus student attention by providing a judicious variety of formats," she says. But she warns that too much variety may result in the flow of the lesson being lost.
One technique recommended on the network's website is using an electronic voting system. This is the kind of technology used for "ask the audience" on the television game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and often proves popular with students because of its anonymity. Students are given electronic handsets and asked to reply to a question by pressing the appropriate button. It means you can find out how many students in the class have understood a point, without putting particular individuals on the spot.
This is not the only way technology can be helpful. James Atherton, principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at De Montfort University, suggests putting your lecture on the web if possible or creating a post-lecture weblog, including library references and responses to questions that have been raised.
Christina Mainka, academic development adviser, online learning, at Napier, suggests using the internet to help provide the "deep learning" that a lecturer simply cannot offer a large class. But she says that online learning must be closely supervised and benefits as much as face-to-face methods from breaking down classes into smaller groups.
Race points out that large classes mean large variations in ability, knowledge and motivation. He suggests tackling this by constantly probing what they already know. "If you can get those who know more talking to those who know a bit less, you can engage those who know it already and add value to those who don't," he says. One way of finding out which is which is to put a question before the class and ask for a show of hands - one hand if they can answer it, two if they think they can and none if they have no idea. That way you can get an idea of what is sinking in, what areas you need to cover more fully and who is feeling particularly lost.
Finally, it is important to remember that large classes are not all bad.
Race says they provide a chance for students to feel part of the big picture and to understand the values and expectations of their course. It is much fairer to brief students when they are all together about how assessments work and what their objectives should be, he says, because that way you can be sure they all received the same information.
And if they can't hear you at the back? Race says you need to find out by giving the students something to do and then asking someone at the back what they think about it. If their answer is silence, yours is easy - use a microphone.
Phil Race, 2,000 Tips for Lecturers , Kogan Page, 1999
Various authors, Teaching More Students Series, available from Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University
Make sure everyone can hear
Break the class down into groups and let groups report back to one another
Vary your teaching style
Regularly check up on how much is sinking in