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Teaching Larger Classes

Dr. Todd Zakrajsek (pronounced Zuh-CRY-shek) isn’t easily intimidated by large lecture halls filled to capacity with sleepy-eyed undergraduates.

“One semester I taught three sections of 200 each,” he says. “That’s 600 students and just one undergraduate teaching assistant.”

He had to do something to make the subject engaging to his students. But a class like Introduction to Psychology doesn’t have the same excitement level as, say, Introduction to Video Games. So, what did he do? You can ask him yourself, or better yet, watch him in action.

Zakrajsek – an Atlantic Coast Conference Teaching Scholar – will share his techniques and tools in a seminar for faculty members titled, “Creating Excitement and Overcoming Apathy in Larger Classes,” on Tuesday, Oct. 6. To register online, visit http://www.ncsu.edu/faculty-development/index.html.

Zakrajsek, executive director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at UNC-Chapel Hill, has taken his ideas across the country in recent years, presenting programs at more than 100 colleges and universities, including Pepperdine, Clemson and Michigan State.

At the upcoming seminar at NC State, Zakrajsek will do more than just talk about his teaching style. He’ll give participants a taste of some of his techniques.

“I tend to draw a pretty big group, because this session is based on research, but also demonstrates specifically how to apply the concepts in just about any class.”

There’s good reason to think the seminar will be popular. Recent budget reductions have resulted in larger class sizes and faculty members are looking for ways to keep their students engaged and excited. In response, the Office of Faculty Development and DELTA have teamed up to offer a series of 10 seminars on the topic. Zakrajsek’s is the first in the series, which runs through Dec. 3.

A review of the topics – from how to use technology to issues of academic integrity – makes it clear that there’s a lot more to teaching big classes than just being heard in the back row.

“If you slip into an all-lecture format, the whole feel of the class is going to be very different than when students are engaged in the material,” Zakrajsek says.

Dr. Maxine Atkinson agrees.

“I am not a big fan of lecturing,” she says. “I rarely lecture for more than 10 minutes. It’s one of the most inefficient ways of providing information.”

Atkinson, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at NC State, is the 2009 recipient of the Board of Governors Award for Teaching and Learning Excellence. She’ll help facilitate a seminar titled, “Surviving Larger Classes: Tricks and Tips,” on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Atkinson says the challenges facing faculty members are not unique to NC State.

“This is a national challenge in higher education,” she says. “At research one universities we train Ph.D.s to be researchers and structure our campuses around research. We are not as well structured to support teaching.”

That underscores the importance of the upcoming seminar series, she says.

“We have to be able to teach both efficiently and effectively,” she says. “It is possible to do so, even in larger classes.”

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