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Beating learner passivity in large classes

February 21, 2010

Large English language classes are commonplace in the public sector universities of Pakistan. They present a number of problems to teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL), learner passivity among which tops the list.

However, learner passivity is not just a problem here in Pakistan but as mentioned by Frederick (1987) also in large classes the world over. I have noticed in the university where I work that students in the English Compulsory classes remain largely passive and unmotivated and the number present in the class is mostly low. Since this signals the lack of engagement and interest of students in English Compulsory classes, I decided to investigate how we can increase student involvement in a large university-level ESL class by undertaking action research.

Prior to carrying out my research, I reviewed the literature to see what is written on the topic of increasing learner involvement in large class settings. I found several useful references. However, I noticed that the literature on learner involvement views learner engagement in a large class in cognitive terms and the markers of learner involvement in a class are considered to be learners' on-task behaviour and active participation in a class.

I also noticed that the literature often suggests involving students in a large class through making greater use of active modes of teaching (National Institute of Education Report, 1984; Fedler, 1997) and does not talk about increasing learner involvement by taking affective measures in a class.

In my action research, therefore, I decided to extend the meaning of the term learner involvement. I defined it as engaging learners in a class not only cognitively but affectively as well. Thus, in my lessons I tried to address the whole learner by keeping in mind the human side of the learners and their basic psychological needs as well.

Findings and conclusion

Results of the study I undertook showed that increasing students' involvement in a large class may be challenging and hard work but it is still possible to do so by making the students both cognitively and affectively engaged in a class.

It came out from the study that it required awareness on the part of the teacher of the challenges and issues that large classes present and the acceptance of the teaching context, a problem-solving approach and a positive outlook to turn the challenges into opportunities. In other words, involving learners in a large class required realisation of the fact that even though one cannot direct the wind they can always adjust the sails.

Furthermore, engaging students in a large class required a passion for the subject and teaching, a welcome stance towards students, building a rapport with students, dealing with the student as a whole person and, most important of all, genuine care and respect for learners.

What also helped in engaging learners in a large class was treating students as adults and handing over classroom responsibilities to them in order to raise their sense of responsibility. In short, the study showed that increasing the learner's involvement in a large class required a smooth orchestration between all of the above mentioned aspects of classroom processes.

It is important to note that the study also showed that there is no direct correlation between class size and student involvement in the class. It so appeared that students in large classes can get involved in the classes probably just as well as those in small ones. It seemed that what helps students get engaged in a class is not the size of the class but the quality of teaching. This finding confirms that small or large classes do not automatically involve learners in learning as noted by Dail (1997).

Moreover, the study showed that even though involving learners in a large class setting was challenging, it also presented many opportunities to improve and grow as a teacher professionally. For instance, I improved my interpersonal skills as I tried out different ways to get to know how my learners think and feel during the classes.

The findings of this study showed that it is possible to involve learners in a large class provided a teacher, broadly speaking, creates a learning environment and develops a sense of community in learners and teaches effectively in a large class by being aware of how and what to teach, by creating lesson plans, using a variety of teaching methods and wearing a positive stance towards large classes.

Since I found the techniques I used for increasing student's involvement in a large class to be useful, I intend to discuss them briefly here. However, I am also sensitive to the fact that there is no single or best way to involve learners in a large class as teaching is a highly personalised and context-dependent activity.

Classroom environment

Since learning cannot happen in a chaotic environment, I tried to create a well-managed physical and psycho-social learning environment in my class to cognitively and affectively involve them in the class.

Organising

To encourage active learning and student involvement I made a number of interventions in my large class. For instance, I made students sit in U-shape and in groups to encourage them to interact with each other as well as the teacher.

Moreover, I made students responsible for the management of the physical environment of the classroom. For instance, I made them responsible for wiping the blackboard and keeping chalk for me.

In addition, I removed the extra furniture from class in order to reduce the feeling of over-crowdedness and to remain in close proximity with them. The reduction of physical and social distance between me and the students also made the large class appear small to me.

Psycho-socio environment

To involve students cognitively and affectively in my large class I tried to create a sense of a “learning community” among them. For that I made a number of interventions. To begin with, I talked about classroom rules and procedures for work to create a classroom environment that is orderly and can promote successful learning. This developed a sense of responsibility in students as one of them who never came to my class also sent her application through a class fellow.

To create a positive environment in my class, I used unobtrusive classroom management techniques for developing student behaviour rather than controlling it. In addition, I tried to empower students by giving them choices to make them own the class. For instance, I asked them to write on a topic of their choice. Similarly, I asked them to select texts they would like to read in the class. These choices also addressed their psychological need for autonomy.

Moreover, I also tried to remember the names of my students, which I actively used during my interaction with them to give the feeling that they existed for me as individuals and not as a herd. Moreover, I tried to personalise this large class by presenting myself “as a person” to my students and not simply as their “teacher”.

In addition, to meet the students' psychological need of relatedness, I encouraged them to help each other in performing individual classroom tasks and also assigned a group leader to build a sense of community in them.

Teaching effectively

In order to involve learners and bring order in a large class I carefully planned my lesson and activities for each class.
Planning lessons

For my classes I tried to plan lessons in a logical and incremental manner and tried to interconnect them with the previous classes. Therefore, some of the things done in the earlier classes were discussed again in later classes.

However, it is important to note that I did not follow the designed lesson plans religiously. Rather I adopted them to the circumstances the teaching context presented to me to make teaching and learning effective.

Sharing learning objectives

For each lesson, I thought about the knowledge, skills and attitude I want my students to learn and shared the learning objectives of lessons with students so that everybody had a common understanding of the learning objectives to be covered. Sharing of the learning objectives also helped me arouse and catch students' attention, which is a major challenge in a large class.

Resources and material

I tried to make the most of the available material resources, blackboard and handouts, believing that the best of teaching can also happen under the shade of a tree if a teacher knows what to do. In other words, I viewed the challenge of teaching a large class as an opportunity, not a problem.

Starting the teaching process

Since the teacher is a “scarce resource” in a large class, one major challenge is to be available to communicate with students to increase their level of involvement in the classroom. I made a number of interventions in order to meet this challenge.

Firstly, I reached my classes early. It made my students see how enthusiastic I was about teaching and they started coming to class early, too. It also provided us with an opportunity to talk.

Secondly, I tried to get and hold students' attention at the very beginning of a class through some lead-in activity such as free-writing, which also established a beginning-of-class routine. Lastly, I tried to help them set a personal agenda/goal for learning, which I made them revisit in my classes, time and again .

Teaching methods

In order to embrace diversity in learning styles, I exposed my students to a wide variety of teaching methods and learning experiences. For instance, I made them listen, read and stretch themselves during pair work, group work and whole class discussion.

This was done not only on different days but also within a single class period which catered to the needs of kinesthetic learners. Thus, there was an energy shift within a class about every 15 minutes by changing both the activity and the voice or voices.

Reflection on my teaching

I tried to improve how I teach and what I teach by asking the students to give feedback on my classes through reflection forms. I also filled several checklists to monitor my teaching and involve learners in the class.

The writer teaches Applied Linguistics at the Department of English, University of Karachi.