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How to Make Your Classroom Sizzle

Without energy and engagement, students don’t want to learn, and teachers don’t want to teach.

The college classroom should be an electrifying experience for students. Instructors face the challenge of creating an exciting environment every time a class convenes. Without a sense of energy and engagement, students may take away little of enduring value, and faculty will be less drawn to teaching. Here are five practical steps for generating the high voltage required for students and teachers alike.

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Get a good teaching venue. A classroom’s size and configuration can be a delight or a disaster. The first step of successful classroom management is to negotiate where you practice your trade. The ideal environment is a spacious, tiered classroom with semicircular seating around a brilliantly lit center that’s brimming with visual technologies.

Provide a point summary. Students expect and deserve a paper record at the outset — and subsequently a Web posting — that captures all that you’ll say and show. The handout should contain a menu of what you plan to do; a hook to the last class topic and link to the next; a compendium of the equations, derivations, figures, tables, images, and narratives that carry each day’s content; and, above all, a summary of the class’s main points.

Build a relationship. In researching corporations, I am frequently awed by how many executives personally know the top 500 people in their company. Although encounters with students are far shorter, learning students’ names and mastering their identities early in the term is absolutely critical, even if their numbers are daunting. During a recent teaching term, I faced more than 330 MBA students in four courses, and by midterm, I’d managed to master most of their names. But my storage system was fragile, and my biggest fear was hitting a killer pothole on the way to campus, knocking scores of names from core storage. Meeting students outside the classroom helps you better learn their names, and it shows that you appreciate the personal experiences and aspirations they bring to the course.

Personalizing the classroom is everything: I recently invited a four-star marine general to a class on leadership, and in the few minutes before the class commenced, he had made it a point to shake hands and share words with all 65 students in the room. Having looked him in the eye, they hung on his every word.

View the classroom as a performance stage. Stage actors and opera singers face their audience and deliver their performance appealingly and powerfully. Teachers should do the same in the classroom, which is also a performance stage. A fast-moving, crisply delivered, and content-rich presentation with counterintuitive conclusions is essential. Vague and tedious presentations are catastrophic. Recapping your main points at the end of class assures that students leave knowing why they came.

Transcend the classroom walls. All learning inside the classroom is intended for use outside the classroom, and experiences that momentarily help students imagine the world beyond the classroom will ensure that academic learning becomes more than academic. For a course on leadership, for example, you may want to transport your students mentally to the Gettysburg battlefield to ask what they would have done had they been commanders during the Civil War. You might ask them to imagine leading a team of climbers through a storm on the upper slopes of Mt. Everest when a storm hits, or sitting at U.N. headquarters when a crisis explodes, or running a company when the market implodes.

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Employ all five steps and the learning experience will optimize what students master during their brief moments with you.

Mike Useem (useem@wharton.upenn.edu) is professor of management at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Leadership and Change.