Author:  Dr. Stephanie Thomas, Cornell University

How do you engage a class of more than 450 students with varying academic backgrounds and vastly different interests in the subject?

This is the challenge I face every fall semester when I offer Introductory Microeconomics. I approach this question from the following perspective: students come to class on the first day because they have to come. They come to class the rest of the semester because they want to come.

It’s hard for us to imagine why a student wouldn’t want to come to class! As instructors, most of us enjoyed going to class, and we’re passionate about the subject we teach.

In my experience, three key reasons explain why my students might not want to come to class: class format, frustration and lack of timely feedback.

Create an Engaging Course, No Matter the Class Size

My university refers to my class periods as “lectures.” The word alone is off-putting for some, but sitting in an auditorium early in the morning listening to someone talk for an hour is likely a little off-putting for anyone. I don’t lecture —I have an active classroom. Even with hundreds of students, it’s possible to incorporate simulations and experiments, small-group work, independent problem-solving exercises and self-assessments. My digital solution is MindTap by Cengage. This digital tool allows me to scale my active learning protocols from a seminar setting of 15, to a large classroom of hundreds.

Fight Frustration with Digital Resources

Frustration is the second reason I’ve identified for lack of engagement. Frustration can happen at both ends of the spectrum; some students struggle to keep up with class activities, while these same activities aren’t challenging enough for others.

The digital resources within MindTap allow me to easily identify students who need extra help and distribute remedial materials. At the same time, I can augment the required course materials with supplemental readings, case studies, news analyses and other enrichment activities to challenge my high-achieving students.

Save Time While Providing Timely Feedback

We all know timely feedback is critical to the learning process. But providing timely feedback – especially in larger classes – can be difficult. As instructors, we can hold office hours and answer questions via email and video chat, but we can’t always be available when students need us. If a student is working on a problem set at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night, I won’t answer their question until the following morning.

I solve this challenge with digital resources. I have a sense of where students typically get stuck and what questions they ask, then provide supplemental videos or problem walk-throughs that address concepts and questions. I also use electronic self-assessments and practice questions to provide instant grading, feedback and explanations. They’re not a substitute for one-on-one time, but in my experience these resources help students continue working, rather than giving up.

More MindTap Benefits

Using these digital resources also benefit me. I don’t have to spend time printing, copying or manually grading homework questions. This allows me to spend that time interacting with my students, which leads to improved attainment of learning outcomes for them, and improved job satisfaction for me.

So, how do you engage a class of 450-plus students with varying academic backgrounds and vastly different interests in the subjects? I address this challenge with digital resources, including MindTap.

Dr. Stephanie Thomas will be presenting a session, “How I Increased Grades By Increasing Engagement with MindTap” at the Economics Teaching Conference sponsored by Cengage and the National Economics Teaching Association, October 25 – 26 in Phoenix.