How to manage your undergraduate class

Take a moment to remember your days as an undergraduate. Does one lecturer stand out in particular? Perhaps it’s the person who held you spellbound, sparking the curiosity that has carried you to this point in your academic career. Or maybe it’s the one whose droning monotone sent you to sleep each week.

Fast-forward years of research in your chosen field, and now you’re the one at the front of the lecture theatre. But subject expertise alone won’t guarantee a room-full of satisfied and successful learners. Whether you’re just starting out, or further down the line but finding some students hard to engage, here are six tips for managing your undergraduate class:

1. Know your audience

The majority of today’s undergraduates grew up with the internet and are among the first true ‘digital natives’. They are the Snapchat generation, irresistibly drawn to brevity and novelty. While their attention span may be short, they often prove to be confident, independent learners, well accustomed to searching online for any information they need. They are also in the grip of worsening mental health issues, isolation and fear of failure in a world in which, perhaps for the first time, they expect to be less well-off than their parents.

It’s therefore worth giving thought to the particular characteristics that define the current generation of students, and the possible implications for your teaching methods. For more guidance, Eckleberry-Hunt and Tucciarone’s The Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching “Generation Y” may be helpful.

2. Manage expectations

Make this mutual. Set out clearly from the start what you expect from your class, and what they can expect from you. Then stick to it consistently. For your students these standards may include: attendance, punctuality, preparation, attentiveness, participation – and a limitation on the amount of time spent using digital technology during lectures. Asking students to refrain from using phones during class will facilitate collaborative learning and create the circumstances for students to exercise their communication and critical thinking skills.

Start and end your classes punctually, to encourage good timekeeping among your students and be open (and realistic) about marking and feedback turnarounds.

It may also be helpful to clarify when you are available for face-to-face consultation, and those times (e.g. weekends or evenings) during which you will not read or respond to email.

3. Create connection

To minimise distraction or boredom amongst your class, seek to foster interest and connection by:

  • Making eye contact
  • Sharing stories and real-life examples
  • Using humour where appropriate
  • Varying your tone
  • Choosing short, strong words
  • Moving around the room

4. Ensure sound structure

A clearly communicated, logical structure will improve your students’ ability to absorb and retain key information. Be systematic in creating coherent sections and highlighting explicit links between them.

  • Use signposting phrases to help your students navigate with you, e.g.‘First, I will…’, ‘Next we’ll look briefly at…’
  • Underline what matters, so it stands out, e.g. ‘It’s crucial to…’, ‘What’s key to understand here is…’
  • Summarise regularly, taking the opportunity to compare and contrast, and highlight important similarities and differences, e.g. ‘To reiterate…’, ‘In summary…’
  • Include pauses, so students can catch up or consolidate what they have just heard

It’s also worth building variety into the shape of your lecture. Concentration tends to lapse after 15-20 minutes, so in an hour-long lecture it is advisable to create three distinct sections. After twenty minutes delivering information, for example, focus could shift to a collaborative problem-solving activity, or a deep dive into a case study.

5. Increase engagement through group work

A highly effective way to boost student engagement is through group work. Cardiff University’s Dr Iain Mossman sets out a number of valuable strategies for structuring small group work sensitively and successfully here, which include:

‘Ensure that the tasks and the expected outcomes are clearly defined: uncertainty can allow confident students to dominate. It also helps to put instructions for tasks in writing, and either provide them in advance, or allow plenty of time for reading.

Consider whether to allow students to select their own groups or whether you will allocate them yourself, either randomly or in some other way. If students select their own groups they may self-segregate in ways which can be unhelpful.

Recognise that, left to themselves, students may not distribute the group’s workload fairly and consider whether to provide additional structure to address this.

For extended group work, particularly when it is assessed, consider requiring each student to keep a record of how the group decided on tasks, arranged meetings and allocated work. This can encourage them to keep in mind the need for fairness, and may provide you with a useful record of the group’s activity.’

6. End well

Plan carefully how you will end each session. Avoid finishing abruptly or vaguely. The final minutes help define what people take away and what expectations they bring next time. Summarise the main points of your lecture and make slides and handouts available.

Consider ending early to allow students to come and ask you questions, demonstrating your supportiveness and accessibility.

By investing in your classroom technique in this way you’re more likely to be remembered by your undergraduates in the future – for all the right reasons.

Further reading:

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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