The Set-up: Production Elements for a Superclass

The Set-up: Production Elements for a Superclass

Michael L. Atkinson
1998 3M Teaching Fellow

eaching a large class (which could be any class size, but usually over roo) is a lot more difficult than teaching a small class. To be successful, the instructor must solve the problems associated with potential student anonymity, diverse levels of comprehension, and the challenge of motivating such a large group. Add to this the administrative quagmire of giving exams, record keeping, and managing a small army of teaching assistants and proctors. What do you really have to do to prepare for this kind of teaching? I try to answer this question by describing the preparation for a single large class.

12:35 p.m.

I’ve spent over ten hours preparing for today’s lecture-about seven hours yesterday and three more this morning. Even though I’ve taught this huge class for over ten years now, it still takes a great deal of time to make sure that everything is right. New video, new PowerPoint, tweaks on the actual presentation, announcements, questions from last time … it all adds up. Class starts in forty minutes, but I need to load and cue all of the audio-visual material, do sound and video checks, and talk to the students who have started to assemble in the lecture hall. The stage crew has already been here and set up the temporary stage at center court.

12:40 p.m.

Case unpacked, music playing: ready to cue the video material. In a huge lecture theatre (this one holds 1220) there is no room for miscues; AV errors or audio dropouts. The class must be run as a polished production-this is educational theatre. If my data projector does not work, class is over. If my audio cuts out, class is over. If the computer goes down, class is over. Sure, I have backups for the visuals, but all require the data projector (there is no black/white board and the optical slide projector requires pre-loading). In a pinch, I can simply talk with the class, but I know that the amount of energy required to keep their attention will be much greater. If the audio system fails, I’ve got bigger problems. I can project to this group for about 10-15 minutes before I start to lose my voice. The audio system is the one absolutely essential component in this classroom. Without it, class is definitely over.

12:45 p.m.

Video loaded, checked and cued. PowerPoint is up and running. One of the advantages of being in class a full forty-five minutes early is the ability to use PowerPoint as a display tool for routine announcements and as a “set” for the upcoming class. Today the display alternates between room assignments for the upcoming exam, the outline for today’s lecture, and announcements of upcoming workshops on exam strategies.

12:52 p.m.

Audio checks done. New batteries in the transmitter and the remote pointing device. Today I need to use the visual presenter (basically a document camera that allows for a live video feed from the desktop) and an audience microphone in addition to all the standard multimedia tools. Bill Cox (the technical director) is making sure both are working and switched into the system. He also checks my headset microphone to make sure I have it on correctly.

1:oo p.m.

All AV loaded and tested. Time to review the “script” with Bill. The opening video clip for today is a powerful presentation of conformity and obedience. It starts of with old WWII film segments, then moves to images of Tiananmen Square and finally to a courtroom clip of a soldier on trial for murder. His defense is that he was just following orders. We want to build the drama of this clip, so we have decided to start the tape about one minute early (class always starts at 1:15 p. m. sharp), leave the lights up at first, then bring them down quickly as the trial sequence begins. Bill reminds me that he will cue me to begin at r:r4 p.m. Also, Bill suggests that I wait a few seconds after the clip ends before I start to speak. The house lights will slowly return to the set levels, but the silence itself will make my first point.

Class normally ends around 2:30p.m., but I need to push a little beyond today. Bill will give me a time signal at 2:20p.m. and a three-minute cue at 2:27 p.m. When I have almost finished the lecture, I will touch my headset and return to center stage. This is Bill’s cue to start the exit music. Today’s selection allows me about ten seconds for a voice over.

The teaching assistants have started to arrive and I need to review some points about the exam with them.

1:07 p.m.

Class starts in seven minutes. The room is almost full at this point. I have moved off the central stage to the mezzanine section. Bill has taken up a position at the back of class with the audio controls. I like to spend about ten minutes walking around the room, taking questions and chatting with the students. This classroom setting can feel rather cold, impersonal and detached. I want to work against this perception by moving into the student space and taking some time to find out what issues are on their minds, psychology-related or not. This seems to work. Students have mentioned that my class feels more personal to them than some of their other much smaller classes Cso to roo). The teaching assistants are moving around the class as well.

1:12 p.m.

Time for final preparations. I return to the centre stage and look to Bill for a time check. Start in two minutes. I go over a mental checklist: fade music, start VCR, select VCR on the video switcher, stop current music and cue exit music, pause the minidisk player and reset music audio to fifty percent, drop lights to thirty percent at the start of the trial sequence, check focus on the visual presenter and be ready to switch back to the computer when we come out of video, house lights to set position, take computer, walk off stage, mike on. I’ll review this list several times before starting, especially if there are complicated media switches. I retrieve my sports jacket from the back rail and put it on. The stage transformation is complete.

1:14 p.m.

Show time …. We’re ready to roll.


For me, the Superclass has been a very positive experience. I have learned more about teaching by offering this class than ever before. The feedback from the class is immediate if your lecture is not up to par. If two hundred people start talking to each other, it is quite noticeable. If four hundred people do not show up, the empty seats make a loud statement. You must hold the attention of the audience or you will lose them. Proper use of nonverbal behaviour (movement, voice modulation, eye contact, etc. ) is critical. Along the way, you have to become somewhat of a technology specialist as well. In a large venue, you must move to digital displays (PowerPoint), construct slides using proper graphic design principles, learn the basics of how the equipment works, and be ready to embrace new technology. When I first started teaching, most of my effort was devoted to content and getting enough material for a class. Now I spend most of my time reducing the amount of content and increasing the visual impact. You also become somewhat of an administrator. The Superclass is easily the size of a small college and may be larger than some of the students’ hometowns. I believe that I have heard every excuse and experienced almost all classroom management problems possible in the last twelve years. Add to this the supervision of a seminar-sized group of teaching assistants and a small army of proctors for each exam (about fifty)-coordination and organization are essential.

By the time class ends, I will have logged ten hours of prep time, two hours of lecture, and an additional half hour of student questions after class. Bill and I will spend about half an hour over coffee reviewing to day’s class while it is still fresh in our minds. I’ll need at least another hour and a half to “decompress” when I return to my office-I’m completely drained mentally and physically (I probably lose a few pounds every class). In addition to my fifteen hours, Bill has logged two and a half hours today plus a few hours yesterday editing videotape. The stage crew needs one hour to set up and another hour to tear down. The four teaching assistants will spend two hours each in class. A total of about thirty hours to mount. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Student feedback has been extremely positive and “Superpsych” is consistently rated as the top first year class at Western. We’re making a difference and we’re ready to do it again tomorrow.