As educators, most of us place content at the center of our courses. After content has been organized, we then focus on ways to teach that content to students and how we will assess their learning. We think about learning styles, teaching styles, numbers of students, room space, and available technology. We think about whether we need to deliver content via lecture, discussion, overhead slides, or course management systems. We think about how (or if) we can make our courses interactive. Once all this has been defined and planned, we are set to go. That is, we are set to go until we learn we will teach multiple sections of that same course . . . during the same semester.
Teaching more than one section of the same course sounds easy, doesn’t it? It means one less preparation for a semester, as we can just teach that content two or three times instead of just once. Yea, easy. But if you’ve taught multiple sections of one class in one term, you know it’s harder than it looks.
This semester, I’m teaching four sections of the same American literature survey course. That’s right: four times each class day, I discuss Emily Dickinson or Booker T. Washington or William Carlos Williams to undergraduates who are required to take a literature survey, any literature survey. Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy these classes, as I love American literature and I sincerely enjoy discussing these historic works. I’m excited to see how students react to texts they’ve never read and to those they may be reading again. I enjoy responding their writings on these stories and poems. But I’m finding an interesting dilemma that I’m sure I face with many of my teaching-multiple-sections-of-the-same-course colleagues: these classes can be woefully uneven, and this unevenness makes teaching a challenge. For example, sections can differ in dramatic ways:
- One class is very verbal and open to discussion; one class is quiet and would prefer to listen.
- One class is routinely prepared; one class rarely brings books.
- One class is predominantly male; another predominately female.
- One class is early morning; one class is late afternoon; one class is directly after lunch.
- One class is large (over 40 students); another is small (fewer than 10 students).
- One class is mostly first- and second-year students; one class is mostly graduating seniors or non-traditional students.
Teaching any of these courses—individually—is what we do. However, when all these variables happen in one term, all with the same course content, we can struggle. Since the same learning outcomes must be met across all sections, it’s advantageous, for the students as well as the professor, for example, to pace the classes similarly. But when students across sections react differently to the same texts, have different questions, have different interests, have different temperaments, move at different speeds, keeping them interested, engaged, and curious about the material makes teaching quite a challenge.
Here are a few things I do to manage the pace and content of these courses:
- I assign students into small groups of three or four students each to discuss course content and present (informally) for the rest of the class.
- I ask students to create analysis questions for the other sections to answer. This way, I can unify the questions across all sections (and these questions could be potential essay / test questions).
- I use the Think-Pair-Share method (a method George outlined a few months ago) to get shyer students (in the larger classes, for instance) to be more vocal.
- I keep detailed notes from each class in my lesson planning notebook so I know where each section begins and ends.
How about you? If you have taught multiple sections of the same course in one semester, what are your tips and tricks to keeping the classes at about the same pace or stage of learning? Or do you? How do you manage the sometimes unwieldy number of learning styles across many sections and students? Please leave comments and suggestions below.
[Image by Flickr user 00Dann and used under the Creative Commons license.]