Classes at my institution started last week, which means that my co-teacher and I greeted just over 150 students in our biochemistry class. When I start the semester, I’m always struck by how many students there are, and how a big class like this would not have brought out the best in me. I thrived in the small classes I experienced in college, where I got to know my professors and my colleagues pretty well, and I think that I would have found a class of 150 intimidating and perhaps isolating.
Perhaps partly for that reason, I think a lot about how I can mimic parts of a small class in my biochem class. I want to get to know my students, and I want them to get to know each other. I want them to think of us as a group of colleagues and collaborators with a common goal: developing a love and understanding of some of the basics of biochemistry. The sense of belonging that I’d like my students to develop has been shown to be important for academic achievement and persistence (here and here, for example).
One really basic way to help people feel like they belong in a group is to know and use their names, but when I’m staring at a class of 150, this can feel like a big task. Yes, I create notecards where my students tell me their names (and how to pronounce them), their pronouns, and something about themselves on the first day of class, and I tape their pictures on the cards, and I find these cards extremely valuable—but they’re not so great at helping me learn names. Why? One, I hate flashcards and pretty much refuse to use them, and two, the pictures don’t look like the students sitting in front of me!
A couple of years ago, Katelyn Cooper and Sara Brownell published a paper that suggested a relatively simple solution. They used name tents in a high-enrollment, upper-level biology class for a semester and found that this practice increased students’ perception that the course instructors knew their name. 85% of the students in the class said it was important for instructors to know their names because it made them feel more valued, more invested in the course, and more comfortable getting help, among other reasons. In addition, students said that the name tents helped them get to know each other and helped to build a classroom community.
After reading this paper, I jumped in and used name tents. I was really pleased—it helped me learn students names, it made it seem more personal when I called on groups after clicker questions or think-pair-shares, and the survey I did after using the name tents for three weeks suggested that a majority of the students found it valuable too. [Full disclosure: not everyone thought it was valuable, and the small size of the desks in the room made it challenging at times.]
At the end of the semester, though, I had a disheartening experience. Around the time of the final exam, I met with a student who had quit coming to class soon after I started teaching. When I asked why, they said that they were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and that the possibility that I would call on them in class was just overwhelming. I tried to defend myself: “Even though I only call on you after you’ve had a chance to discuss? Even though you can always pass?” but it was no good. The truth was that by calling on students, I had made this student feel like they couldn’t be there.
I wasn’t willing to forgo using active learning approaches in class—there’s too much evidence that it helps students learn (for example, the famous Freeman meta-analysis, and my favorite, Eddy and Hogan’s Getting Under the Hood). But I couldn’t keep setting up a situation where some students felt like they should avoid class because my practices increased their anxiety. I decided to adapt Brownell’s name tents to help me solve this problem. The next year I taught biochemistry, I had students write their names on one side of the tent. On the other side, they wrote their names and write a filled in box. On days when they didn’t want me to call on them, they turned the cards so that the box side pointed toward me.
Was it perfect? No—one day I wasn’t paying attention and accidentally called on a student with the box turned toward me. Luckily, they picked up the card and pointed to the box, laughing. But overall, I feel like this is a good way to go. It helps me create a community in the classroom by promoting use of names and it gives me a mechanism to know who doesn’t want to speak in this big class that can be kind of intimidating. For the moment, it’s the best way I know to let us the benefit of active learning without, hopefully, some of the anxiety-related side effects.
I’d love to hear others’ approaches. How do you tackle this problem?