For This Large-Class Lecturer, Cartwheels and Communication are Key

Tasked with teaching more than 2,000 students each term, University of Michigan Senior Lecturer Brenda Gunderson uses a range of creative active learning strategies in her large classes. But it is Gunderson’s cartwheels that students often say resonate the most.

“Seeing her do a cartwheel in class because she’s so excited that the entire class got the question right [is] awesome,” a student of Gunderson tells ACUE. “I love watching my professors goof off sometimes and knowing that they can be funny, that they’re humans too and not just robots throwing information out at you.”

Gunderson, an award-winning statistics instructor who is featured in ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices, shares the origins of her famed cartwheel routine in this month’s Expert Series interview. She also discusses other active learning strategies to address the unique challenges of teaching large classes. Check out the full interview below and leave a comment to share your thoughts or questions!

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In ACUE’s Motivating Your Students module, you discuss doing cartwheels to keep students engaged. How does that work and where did that idea come from?

BG: We use clickers in the classroom so that all students can answer my questions. At the beginning of every semester, I tell them that I’ll do a cartwheel if and when every single student answers a question with 100% accuracy. Now, I only do cartwheels at the end of class session because the cartwheels are not always that gracefully done, so I want to be able to walk right out when I’m done and not have to get back to teaching.

I have some sections that get no cartwheels the whole term; I have some sections of class that get one or maybe two in total for the term. This semester, there’s one section that already has two, and if they get a third that will be the most cartwheels I’ve done in any section I’ve taught.

There were two things that led to the idea. I was on a committee where we discussed how to incentivize our students to complete faculty evaluations. One of the members said, “Maybe I’ll just promise the students that I’ll wear a tutu to class if I get a 95% or higher response rate.” At the time, my daughter was in gymnastics and asked me if I could do a cartwheel. I was able to, so on a whim I decided to promise it to students. It just kind of came together at the same time.

Video: How doing cartwheels in class keeps students engaged and increases participation

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Cartwheels aside, what are some more conventional active learning strategies you use in large classes?

BG: Whether it’s a cartwheel, bringing in some candy to share with the students, or showing short video clips, there are lots of things you can do to keep them excited and engaged in their learning. Some of my students tell me that they come to class regularly because, one, they might see a cartwheel, and two, in every class I have a picture, comic, or short video clip. Sometimes, it’s just something about what I did last weekend or a cool video clip that ties in with the subject of the lecture. For instance, I showed a video clip of my daughter playing her first piano recital. The song was “Lost Puppies,” and at the end, her piano instructor told her she should bark, and she did. I showed that during a part of class where we were testing a theory about whether piano lessons might improve young children’s reasoning ability.

These pictures or comics or video clips can also affirm that I’m a real person. It’s such a large class, so they may not have talked to me in person, but I want them to still feel comfortable reaching out to me.

What are the main challenges of teaching large classes, and what do you do to overcome them?

BG: When you’re teaching a really large class, it’s often in a lecture hall that is not conducive to interacting with all your students. So you need to walk up and down the aisle, make regular eye contact, and make sure students get an opportunity to raise their hands if they have a question. You have to try to make it feel like a small classroom setting.

Another challenge is that I’m not going to get to know all my students, and that’s just something that I have to accept. I’m teaching 700 students this semester, and there’s no way I’ll even know all of their names by the end. So on day one, I tell my students if they see me on campus or outside of the classroom, they should stop and say hello, introduce themselves. I want them to know that I care about their learning, so they feel comfortable reaching out.

Video: Why communication is key to active learning in large classes

How do you engage and motivate students who are taking your course because it is a requirement?

BG: Statistics, the class I teach, and many others are gateway courses that are usually taken as a freshman or sophomore with a lot of students. These are the courses that most students will say they “have to” take. There aren’t many students taking it because they want to.

So you need to use examples from different disciplines to show students the relevance of the material to their lives. Students have a variety of backgrounds and skills and interests, so I try to bring in current events from different areas, like medicine, social sciences, business, or engineering. Then students see the ways these tools help people in whatever discipline they want to pursue.

One of the things that’s been exciting lately is the ability to use technology to personalize the experience for students. We have a bank of testimonials  and advice from past students, and we use technology to deliver personalized messages to each student. For example, students in the same major can give current students advice to help them see why it’s relevant and why they’re learning the content.

That allows me to make up for the fact that I can’t sit down and talk to each of them individually, say in office hours. So it’s really helpful for these gateway courses to harness technology to speak to our students, so that they don’t just feel like a number in the class.

Video: Harnessing technology to maximize student learning

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