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September 2010




Welcome Back to Class!

Heather R. Theijsmeijer
CASCA Education Coordinator

As a new school year gets under way, we are often met with dozens, if not hundreds, of new, keen students, ready to learn all that you have to teach. By Thanksgiving, however, we may find that many students are opting to not attend class. Not only can this affect their mark (something the student needs to take responsibility for), but it can also affect the tone and overall morale of the classroom or lecture hall.

This issue’s article presents a few ways of indirectly encouraging students to continue attending class throughout the year, with only a little effort on the lecturer’s part. With students who enjoy coming to class, you will find lectures more pleasurable to teach and interactions with the students more enjoyable.

It’s never too late to try one or more of these suggestions in your classes. Likewise, if you find that some are not practical for your situation, there’s no need to do all of them. But do try some of them. Your students will thank you!

Starting class on a high note

  • Start each class with a brainteaser or thought-provoking question – students will think about the question at the start of a lecture, and may return to it part-way through the lesson if their mind starts to wander. Refer to the question later in the lecture to allow students time to formalize an answer in their mind. You could even start by giving them scrambled words to unscramble, and that they will later see in the lecture.
  • Get a laugh – put up a joke or a cartoon on an overhead, the first Powerpoint slide or on the side of the chalkboard. Bonus if it can be tied in to your lesson! You don’t need to refer to it during your talk; just having it there makes the students feel more welcome.
  • Play music – music can set the tone of your lecture, and there are a number of astronomy-related songs to choose from (even Monty Python’s Galaxy Song comes to mind!).

Bribe them!

  • Offer silly prizes – astronomy stickers, glow-in-the-dark stars, etc. (‘Dollar Stores’ are wonderful places to look!) can be offered up for in-class contests, such as: “Who can guess the number of exoplanets found to date?” or “In what year was…?” You can also have random draws in class for everyone who attended that day.
  • Include students in the course content – putting students’ names in examples, on tests or in problem sets is an easy way to make them feel included in the class, particularly if the class is too large for the professor to know them individually. Exemplary answers from tests or problem sets can also be shared with the class – even anonymously, the student will recognize his/her work and feel included.

Pick-me-ups during the lecture

  • Lots of visuals – putting pictures not only in slideshow presentations, but also on the wall, will give students something to focus on. There are many great poster sets, from Nobel Prizes, to advancements in Physics/Astronomy, as well as Hubble-esque images that can liven up a lecture or lecture hall.
  • Play music – giving the students time to work? Lighten the mood with some carefully-selected science- or astronomy-themed music. Or, include it as a soft background to dramatize your lecture.
  • Use props – small props, such as having a telescope in class, or a framed picture of Einstein on the front bench facing the students, can help engage the students and connect them with your topic. Silly props, such as a message pulled out of a bottle, or a pennant that says “Go Hubble!” can also help keep students alert and focused on you.
  • Move around and make eye contact – connect with your students by speaking directly to them, even if they are not looking back.
  • Get the students to vote – by having students hold up their hands, give you a thumbs-up/thumbs-down, hold up signs or use ‘clickers’, you can check understanding while having them participate in the lecture. If the students feel as though their feedback matters, they are more likely to buy into the lectures.
  • “Nothing succeeds like success” – regardless of your lecture style, start easy, with familiar concepts that are easy to grasp, and work your way up to the more challenging concepts. This makes sure you include all students (at least in the beginning!), which will encourage them to continue attending.

CASCA education Webteam (2009)


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