Motivating Students in Small Classes

Contact: Dimitra Petropoulou
London School of Economics and Political Science
d.petropoulou@lse.ac.uk
Published October 2001

[This case study describes the methods and the problems encountered in the teaching for which Ms Petropoulou has twice been awarded the LSE Economics Teaching Prize.]

The classes for 'Economic Analysis of the EU' are structured around 20 lectures. Their purpose is to further the students' understanding of the course material through problem solving and class discussion, often combining several different sources on the reading list.

I have found it most important that students have an explicit structure for each class, and the course in general, around which they can build their knowledge in an organised way. It is important for them to understand the relative importance of different sources and where they fit into the curriculum.

For the purpose of adding structure, I begin each class with an overview of the material to be covered in the class, and where it fits into the course structure. In particular, I outline the key questions that need to be answered. After this introduction, I proceed to work through the problems and discussion questions in turn, making note of associated references that students should consult, identifying the most important passages. When faced with a long reading list comprising of several chapters from books and a number of articles, students have difficulty prioritizing their reading and knowing which areas are beyond the scope of the course. Highlighting the key sections maximizes their benefit from further reading.

Equally important for structure is ending the class with a summary of the key arguments discussed, results found and conclusions drawn.

Hand in hand with structure comes clarity. Clearly laying out solutions to problems, working step by step is greatly appreciated by students. When working out problems on the board, it is important for the teacher not to turn their back to the class as this prevents him or her from perceiving the degree of understanding of the students.

Being a continuing student myself (PhD Economics), I have found it useful to anticipate in advance the parts of explanations where students are likely to feel lost and thus give particular attention. Often, when working through more complicated problems, it is worth preparing a handout so that students can focus on understanding the explanation rather than frantically copying out all the workings. In addition, where potentially unfamiliar mathematical manipulations are required, I first review the mathematical technique and then proceed to work through the problem at hand, so that students can absorb the economics without getting lost in the mathematics.

When dealing with discussion-type questions where student participation is greater, I find it most effective to guide the discussion by handing out a 'tree' outline of the main points around which debate can take place. With sessions of 50 minutes in which to cover several questions, these are particularly time-efficient.

All too often students come to class unprepared, sometimes without even having read the question. Thus, reading the question before getting into the answer can be very important. One of the greatest skills is to succeed in making relatively unprepared students understand, and take an interest in the questions at hand, without compromising the level of the explanation offered or delaying the progress of the class.

Other problems include dealing with students of varying backgrounds in economics. Although by the third year most students have worked through the same courses and have a similar level, there is a percentage of exchange students coming from other universities, predominantly from the United States. It can be a challenge solving problems requiring background knowledge not shared by all. I have dealt with this by meeting such students outside class and assigning extra reading in advance, thus preparing them for material to come.

Interaction with the students is critical for a class to be successful. Asking questions and encouraging comments can be very constructive, while trying to avoid the common problem of too much time spent on one issue. The teacher's ability to pick up 'signals' from students and adjust the pace and content of the class to meet students' needs is very beneficial, making flexibility an important skill. Far too often classes are impersonal meetings where students are bored and commit little concentration. Trying to make them more personal can greatly affect the commitment of students. Simple things like learning the students' names early on are invaluable. More generally, making a point of learning students' nationalities, courses, problems, goals etc. while always being approachable and contactable. In short, taking an interest in your students can evoke commitment and inspiration making the course satisfying for both teacher and students.