Suggestions for making classes more interactive

One of my introverted junior colleagues asked for suggestions on how to keep students engaged for a 3 hour block class without completely exhausting him and also to make sure they don’t skip the readings before class.  Here’s some of my suggestions.

I really like Boice’s suggestion with teaching, “get them to do the work,” and keep that in mind when I’m coming up with new class preps.

Here’s some more targeted suggestions:

– Provide them with discussion questions to go along with their readings, then hit those discussion questions in class discussion. Since everybody will have something written down, you can cold-call and/or round robin around the table to get everyone’s answers.
– Have them come up with discussion questions.  Have them post the discussion questions online prior to class for everyone to read.
– Ask them to present on specific topics. (I find presenting about the details of different public programs to be kind of boring, so I’ll let them pick off a list for one of my classes. It’s something they can present on without a huge amount of econ knowledge.)
– Have them find literature or news stories that directly relate to the topic for the week.
– Have them follow people of interest on Twitter and pick a tweet or two that deal with the topics of interest in you class. You can start class going around the table and asking them about what’s going on in current events based on their twitter feeds.
– Cancel regular class prior to a major written assignment but require them to stop by your office individually to get feedback on their papers prior to submission.
– Have them workshop each other’s papers in class. (Your campus writing center may have resources to help you do this.)
– Debate
– In-class exercises
– Guest lecture
– Ask the library for help on research
– Show videos, discuss the videos

What suggestions do you have for breaking up long classes and keeping students engaged?

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8 Responses to “Suggestions for making classes more interactive”

  1. CG Says:

    I have been teaching 3-hour classes for many years. I use many of the techniques you mention above. I do a role-playing negotiation exercise one week in both of my 3-hour seminars. For my larger 3-hour class on research methods, I also have in-class exercises most weeks that they do in small groups and then come back and discuss (for example, identify the problems with these charts and graphs, critique these survey questions, read these claims and supporting evidence and decide whether the claim is adequately supported). For my theory class, the students are required to write a 1-2 page summary and synthesis response paper before each class, which is a ton of grading, but guarantees that they do the reading and that we have a lot to talk about. I am also bringing in a practitioner panel this year to talk about professional ethics. For my land use policy class we do a scenario planning exercise where, using giant maps and legos, they have to figure out where to put all the people who are projected to move into Portland in the next couple of decades. We also have one in-class lab session where we do population and land use forecasting. Some of these, of course, are specific to my field, but the general idea could be adapted to lots of fields. Writing this actually makes me feel a little bit proud of what I have come up with over the years!

  2. Alison Says:

    In addition to most of the things you mentioned, I also do a lot of role plays/debates. In debates, I usually have them stop partway thought the class to redefine or refocus the question, then group discussions of their position, then fuller class debates. I also do a lot of very short roleplays as part of discussions. I generally put the desks into groups on the first days of class, and then let the student seating patterns define groups that we use in the class roleplays.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have a really great debate instruction set that I stole (with permission) from someone at UMichigan. Basically it has homework before the debate where people in the class act as “aides” and provide information on the topic to the two debaters and the moderator, and the moderator comes up with questions that are distributed in advance. It makes for a really well-informed debate.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    I wasn’t an econ major, but one of the most interesting and memorable assignments I got in a history class was “write a debate on X between John Locke, David Hume, and the Pope.” There were three possible popes so I used all three (got an A). Obviously this is not econ-specific but having the class write/perform a debate between, say, Keynes and Galbraith and whoever else might be interesting?

  4. JaneB Says:

    I’m in STEM, not econ, but do a lot of applied-issues and skills/methods teaching. I do a lot of activities where I either have them generate data or at least DO THINGS with data, and like a long class so they can hear some theory, DO SOMETHING, then think about what it means.

    For basics, for example – for understanding sampling and uncertainty, small groups got bags of mixed dried beans, pulled samples of five beans and put them into a dish, and made up tables of the results, then plotted things like increasing diversity of the bean mix as the sample got bigger, or how the estimated % of red kidney beans changed as the sample got bigger. We then pooled findings, and discovered that there were two different bean mixes in the class (one with 50% RKBs and one with 10%), then talked about how you could statistically test for that difference…

    I had them do a questionnaire on each other about chocolate preferences, enter up the data and decide how to present it graphically, then compare the findings with one of those national surveys from the papers about top chocolate sales, and get them to dig into why the results might be different, which led us to thinking about demographics and representative samples, and led us to then using the online national and regional census data

    In more advanced classes, I like to give them data – maps, tables, etc. – and a “given this data, what would you advise the manager/owner of of this nature reserve/shop/farm/river/tree to do next if they want to achieve this outcome” type question to discuss. If I need a graph in my lecture content, and it’s a good pause point, I give the students data and have them plot the graph themselves – in a lecture theatre I give out graph paper and tailor the data appropriately. Somehow doing stuff physically with data always engages students.

    Instant posters are good too – large paper and a few marker pens, can be summarise the definition of this term from the reading, explain this case, present an argument for/against this issue, three examples of…, design a poster for primary school children/visitors to a farm/voters – then have students look at each others.

    Reading activities which involve something more than quiz Qs, e.g. “rank these six methods in order of effectiveness for tackling this problem” – and do it as a solo-pair-group exercise so they have to think for themselves (often getting out the reading again, I find… but it causes reading, even if that happens in class), then justify their answer to others, and compromise.

    Have multiple readings, tell students before-hand which reading to focus on (so say 30 students, 5 readings, 6 students assigned each reading, so non-attendees don;t mess up the pattern) and use a jigsaw strategy (first group by reading and have them come up with a summary of the key points, then group in a mixed form where each student brings info about their own reading and they compare/contrast/use them all to address the question).

    Queue discussions (good for smaller groups, or days when everyone is falling asleep and you need some movement) – here’s an issue. This end of the room is “absolutely no”, this end is “absolutely yes”. Work out where you fit along the line by discussing with the people around you. Yes, you must be in single file… (this can also be done with a row of chairs, sitting on the table etc. if you have any students who might struggle to stand for the length of the exercise).

    On the other hand, I HATE actual stand up and act type role play so don’t do it with students…. you have to pick things that work with your teaching style.

  5. Shannon Says:

    Write Pair Share. Have them free write about a topic for a short period. Then have them pair up and discuss their responses with a partner. Finally, each pair shares with the class. The writing gives them time to organize their thoughts before talking. The pairing allows them to warm up to talking in class – less intimidating than talking to the whole class. And they can edit their work before having to share with the whole class.


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