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Succeeding With Larger Classes

I remember my first teaching gig and how anxious I felt walking along the corridor to meet my first class. Upon entering the room, I was greeted by a group of no less than seventy-two Business English undergraduates, who (on reflection) were probably just as anxious as me! However, what was an intimidating start quickly turned into one of my favourite classes due to the camaraderie, energy, and sense of community that developed among the group.

Fast forward ten years, I now prefer teaching groups of adults over tutoring one-to-one. While managing a group of learners of any number can be daunting and challenging, whether face-to-face or online, the following strategies have helped me keep my nerve, build a supportive atmosphere, and foster meaningful communication between learners.

Challenge 1: Overcoming nerves

While a group of adult learners can be daunting, it helps to remember that everyone comes to class with their bag of worries. Keeping this in mind helps me focus on my learners and thus draw my attention away from any anxiety I may feel, especially when meeting a group for the first time.

A short ice-breaker activity also helps everyone to relax, warm up, and get into the learning mindset. I like to set up the ice-breaker before the lesson starts so that learners can engage in the activity as soon as they arrive. For this reason, simple tasks that are accessible for all levels and encourage learners to start interacting with each other are often the most effective.

Here are a few activities that are easy to adapt to online or offline classes:

  1. Show a picture along with an example sentence and question.
    I saw a live football match on the weekend.
    What did you do at the weekend? Ask at least two of your classmates.
  2. Show an illustration with a task.
    For example, this could be an illustration where learners find objects in the picture. Alternatively, you can show learners an optical illusion or double image.
  3. Ask learners to discuss their top 5.
    This task can be adapted to various lesson contexts, from films to essential qualities you seek in a friend. For lower-level learners, it is a good idea to use visuals in an example list you provide.

Challenge 2: Learners have different needs

From learner levels to learning preferences, there is always a variety of needs in a class, no matter how large the group may be. Including variety, choice, and differentiation strategies in lessons helps to address this challenge.

While it’s impossible to cater to everyone’s preferences all the time, using a variety of tasks, techniques, and interaction patterns helps to sustain learner motivation and support the pace of the lesson. In addition, reviewing lesson materials in advance with this in mind helps identify opportunities for a different approach or task.

Added to this, offering learners choice encourages them to act autonomously over what they learn and how. Giving learners options is especially important when teaching adults as they bring a wealth of experience, knowledge, and skills into the class. Creating opportunities for learners to tailor the lesson to their needs, preferences, and interests through offering options can positively impact levels of engagement and learning.

For example, learners can be offered a choice of:

  • · Task
  • · Role
  • · Interaction pattern
  • · Language skills

Challenge 3: Gathering learners’ attention

It can be challenging to gather learners’ attention to start or transition to the next lesson stage regardless of whether you are teaching online or face-to-face. Be it noise, different students’ pace, or disengagement, distractors are ever-present in any classroom.

Using learners’ names and developing attention-grabbing signals helps build essential classroom routines in both settings to combat that. When giving instructions for a task, it is good to set a time limit and remind learners of their remaining time as they work. Prompt questions or suggestions can also help to extend a task for fast finishers or support the learners’ pace and time management.

Challenge 4: Responding to learners’ questions

While learners may ask questions in any class setting, there is additional pressure when a room of learners waits for you to answer. There will be times when you will not know how to answer learners’ questions, and this is ok – you are not a walking Wikipedia. Even when you know the answer, you may need extra thinking time to consider how best to communicate it in a way that supports learner progress and the lesson overall.

Depending on the question, you may want to open the discussion to the class, ask the learners to research and tell you what they find out, or acknowledge the question and think about it while the learners work on a task.

Challenge 5: Encouraging learners to work together

There can be different reasons why learners may not be keen to work together, from personality differences, expectations of teaching and learning, interaction norms within the learners’ culture, etc.

In this situation, it’s helpful to reflect on why learners may be reluctant to work together by talking to a fellow teacher to get their perspective and (if appropriate) asking learners about which interaction pattern they feel most comfortable with and why. From this research, you will better determine which strategies to use going forward to support and address learners’ needs.

 

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