How to Teach in a Class Without Lectures

Image Source:

Whether you’ve decided to flip, or you are using active learning, or group activities are filling your class time, being the teacher in a student-centered classroom is as far from being a lecturer as being an architect is from being a contractor. As a lecturer you provided the information and the understanding was (hopefully) constructed by others. Now the students come to class with the information already, and you now direct them through specific tasks to implement and apply that information to create their own understanding.

The skill set is so different that my goal here is to provide you with some guidance and practical tasks you can do to be a better teacher in a class without lectures. What won’t be covered here is what types of activites you should design for in class work, nor what kinds of activities students are doing outside of class to learn the content. Here we focus specifically on what you do to get students working and what you should be doing while they work.

First – Send students off to work efficiently

This skill encompasses two goals: first that students know exactly what they need to do and second that you stop yourself from talking too much. 

  1. Develop a standard set of instructions that will get them all the information they need before they begin.
    1. What (exactly) do they need to do
    2. Overall learning goal (every group member knows everything, or a final product for the group, will it all be assessed individually)
    3. How should they work on it (groups, individuals, both, divide and conquer)
    4. How long will they have
    5. What do they do if they have questions
    6. How you will get your attention when you need it.
    7. The go signal – something you use to let students know they can stop listening and get to work. Be sure you review that you didn’t miss anything before you use it.
  2. Practice it – Ideally you want this to be very similar every time students get to active learning.  E through G should be the same for every activity, every time.  A-D are the ones you will change for different types of activities.  Once you know these things well, you can create on the fly work for students to do, because you already know how you will send them to work and get them back from working.

Here’s an example to give you an idea of how quickly you can convey a great deal of information – but because students have heard most of it before, they gather what they need.

“Based on our discussion it sounds like most of you have learned enough about X that we can begin today’s [activity].  As usual, [or today we are doing something different], you have a problem set on your group table that will use what we just learned about X.  The goal here is for your group to complete all the problems, but more importantly that everyone in the group will know how to solve for each of the answers.  So however your group decides to tackle the problem set, you should ask questions of each other and quiz each other to make sure everyone knows how to do the problems.  You have the next 26 minutes to get the problem set completed.  Remember I and your TAs are around and will check in if you need to ask question. I will turn on my mic and ask for your attention when we are ready to move on.  Let’s get to it!”

Try reading this out loud and you will see it goes pretty quickly.

Second – Move and Guide Groups

Here is where your teaching becomes dramatically different.  Most of the students you will teach today have at some point worked in groups.  That does not mean they work well in groups. Your job is to make sure students allow and require everyone to participate while respectfully challenging understanding and handling disputes.

  1. After you send students off to groups, wait for about 2 minutes: Don’t interact with them.  You want them to learn that they need to get to work and questions can wait until everyone has gotten started.  If you a student coming to ask a question, try to motion them to work and let them know you will come see them at their table. The one time you will break this rule is when you can see that students really don’t know how to begin.  That means your instructions were flawed and you should gather attention and try again.  As you get better at the send off, these two minutes will be easy.
  2. After the two minutes, visit each table within 10 minutes. This is a quick check in. Groups should be working and talking.  Ask a question if they are not (how is your group working on this? Need any help from me to get started? [student name] which part will you be working on? How will you make sure everyone knows how to do this?)  I have found a timer set to 1-2 minutes is my best way to ensure I make it to every group, and the groups then know they can count on me to make it to every group quickly.  Keep track of which groups have more questions and get back to them after you make the first round.
  3. This is a great time to learn names.  Listen and try to catch names or just ask for names when someone gives you an answer. 

Goals: Learn student names, encourage groups to work together, prevent groups from completing work as individuals.

Third – Move, Listen, and Pry (ask questions)

When groups are working it now becomes time to encourage and deepen learning.  They key to this is to listen and to ask questions instead of giving answers.  It will also be important that you know the answers to that day’s work.

  1. Spend the entire work time moving from group to group.
  2. Keep your eyes open for hands going up.  If you are in a conversation with a group catch the eye of the person with their hand up and give them a hand signal.  For example you could signal 1 for the first group.  If another hand goes up you could signal 2 to indicate they are second.  Try really hard to maintain that order – if you get caught by another group on the way, tell them they are third in line.  Shorten your time at a table when you have a lineup of questions.
  3. When there are no questions, spend 3-5 minutes listening at a table.  If all sounds good, pretend it isn’t and ask a question, especially of someone that hasn’t said much yet or didn’t solve that particular problem.  You get the chance to remind them everyone needs to learn. If you hear items of concern or mistakes, let it go for a bit to see if another group member catches it.  If not join the discussion and ask a question or give a hint if they know they are struggling.  This is the hard part – don’t give the answer.  “How did you come up with that?  Did you remember to convert to meters?”  “How did you come up with your answer to #6?” Remember to do this for incorrect answers but also occasionally for right answers.  Explaining it out loud is a great way to learn.  You may also want to check a specific problem or question with every group that you know is often done incorrectly.
  4. Especially for problem sets, you will get asked if they got the right answer.  While it is ok to say yes if time is short, a better solution is to ask how many people in the group worked on the answer and did they all agree, or where did they find it in the book or notes.  You can also invite them to send a representative to another table to ask if they got the same answer, and maybe even discuss differences to see if they can come to a consensus.  The idea here is that they will become confident in the answer without you. 

Remembering What to Do:

That is it.  Send them off to work efficiently, then move and listen.  If students are struggling with group stuff guide them.  If students are struggling with content, question them.  You are their Moving PAL.  It’s silly, but if you have a simply way to remember these skills, you will remember them when you are rushed in class.  In class, you want to be a …

Moving PAL:

  • Moving – always moving. Visit tables, set yourself a timer to limit your time at a table if needed.  Don’t let groups jump the order if you have questions lined up.
  • Prying – Ask question about what the group is doing, about the answers, about what they are discussing
  • No Answers – Try to avoid it. Have members check with each other or check with other groups.
  • Listen – Listen more than you speak. The students are supposed to be doing the work, not you.
  • Finally pals always use each other’s names. Try to learn the names of your students and use those names.  Remember to introduce yourself often in the first weeks so students get to know you too.


1 Comment

Leave a Comment