Success with large classes the focus of TiF 2019 keynote address

“Tools of Mass Instruction” was the intriguing title of Eric Kam’s keynote speech at this year’s Teaching in Focus (TiF) conference, and he delivered in spades (pun intended).

Ryerson University Professor and TiF keynote speaker Eric Kam (left) with York AVP Teaching and Learning Will Gage

Kam, a York University alumnus and associate professor of economics at Ryerson University, provided a barrel of suggestions gleaned from his personal experience, all delivered in his humorous, rapid-fire style.

Teaching Commons interim Director Genevieve Maheux-Pelletier and Eric Kam

First, however, Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, the interim director of Teaching Commons, opened the annual conference that focuses on teaching innovation and the scholarship of teaching and learning. The two-day event, which took place May 15 and 16 at York University’s Keele Campus and is now in its seventh year, was organized by the team at Teaching Commons.

“We chose this year’s theme of ‘Intentionality in Your Teaching: From Practice to Praxis’ to open up conversations about different ways of knowing and doing unfamiliar to us,” Maheux-Pelletier said.

She explained that the theme provided everyone an opportunity to mindfully reflect on his or her own teaching practice and should allow attendees to “open their minds and hearts to new perspectives.”

TiF participant Andrew Skelton, assistant professor, Teaching Stream, Department of Mathematics

TiF’s program featured the keynote address, two plenary sessions, a panel featuring the winners of the President’s University-wide Teaching Awards, a poster session and seven blocks of concurrent talks.

The concurrent sessions addressed a variety of useful topics, including using engaging instructional methods in the classroom; ways to support researchers focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning; employing peer leaders to enhance student learning; and becoming a great undergraduate student supervisor.

Conference attendees also had the opportunity to enhance their technological skills at TiF MakerSpace, a production suite that featured a mobile video recording system, screen recording and video editing software and a free, open-source audio recording and editing platform. All of these tools can contribute to the ability to offer blended or online courses or to enhance the classroom experience. These tools, along with expert advice, are made available through the Teaching Commons to faculty interested in exploring and creating digital learning experiences as part of their teaching.

Will Gage

Faculty of Health Professor Will Gage, the associate vice-president of teaching and learning, welcomed the attendees, noting, “There is tremendous work in teaching and learning happening across the university and it’s a pleasure to have great people come out and share their work with others.”

Next, it was Kam’s turn to offer his perspective on keeping students in large classes engaged. His presentation was filled with tips that he has learned from years of teaching economics classes ranging in size from 500 to 1,100 students.

“There’s no one way to teach right,” Kam said, “and it’s also a myth that you can’t do active learning in a large lecture hall. No one wants to hear anyone lecture for three straight hours; you need to break up the monotony. You can brainstorm, you can solve problems, you can work with case studies and you can have discussion periods.”

Before diving into the course material, however, Kam suggested that faculty turn their attention to logistics and classroom management.

“People generally say the last lecture of the semester is the most important, but I believe it’s the first,” he said. “You have 10 minutes to capture the students; it’s when they decide if you’re worth listening to. Put your best teaching into it.”

During that first class, a skilled teacher will also:

  • Set the tone for class interactions;
  • Set clear expectations of what is expected from students;
  • Let them know what they can expect from the professor; and
  • Establish course ground rules and follow through consistently.
TiF conference participant Iris Epstein, professor of nursing in the Faculty of Health

He recommended that the discussion on ‘Day One’ should include acceptable class behaviour, rules, phone norms and lateness.

“Connect the students’ classroom behaviour to professional behaviour,” Kam said. “You’re teaching them to go out into the real world.”

He advised that breaks during lengthy classes are crucial, because “you get 15 to 20 minutes of attention and then they’re gone.”

Kam also warned against altering the rules you’ve set down – “Be consistent so they know what to expect,” or negotiating grades, because “if you want to start a fight in the lecture hall, treat two students differently from each other.”

When it comes to his instructional strategy, Kam is a fan of talking while in motion.

“Get out from behind the podium,” he suggested as he walked the floor. “There’s nothing worse than a professor standing there for 180 minutes. Students love it when you walk up and down the aisles and ask their names when you ask them a question; it tears down walls.”

Conference participants chat with each other prior to the keynote presentation

He reminded faculty that there’s no need to cover the entire text, as long as they teach students all of the important concepts and information and he stressed the importance of pacing a lecture so that valuable information isn’t rushed just to fit it into a class session. Kam is also a fan of breaking up the lecture with interactive opportunities.

Kam’s speech was jam-packed with information that anyone teaching a course might find helpful, including:

  • Deliver challenging topics in multiple formats to increase the students’ opportunities to understand: videos, demonstrations, etc.;
  • Get feedback from students;
  • Establish rules for discourse so the lecture hall is a safe space; and
  • Don’t marginalize students; it never works out well.
TiF concurrent session faculty and teaching assistants pose for a conference cameo

During a Q-and-A at the close of his lecture, Kam was asked how faculty could know if they had succeeded, beyond passing and graduation rates. He ended by quoting one of York University’s renowned economics professors, Avi Cohen, who once told Kam that if he influenced one student in his class, he was doing his job.

Judging by the breadth of Kam’s knowledge of teaching mechanics and strategy, he certainly influenced the TiF audience, and, as organizer Maheux-Pelletier suggested, will allow them to reflect on potential changes to their classroom strategies.

York University’s Teaching in Focus (TiF) conference is an annual peer-led, professional development conference that is offered completely free of charge. It is one of the highlights of the academic year.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus. Images by Ken Turriff.