Planning an Effective Class Session

Jocelyn McWhirter, Religious Studies

Who knew that a class session could have a definite beginning, middle, and end? I’ve known for a week, and that knowledge has changed my approach to every class I’ve taught since then.

Here’s the basic idea. First, you start well by throwing out some kind of hook that engages the students right away. Then you enable student learning by segmenting the middle of the class with learning activities and maybe mini-lectures. Finally, because students usually remember what happened during the last few minutes, you close strong by asking them to summarize what they have learned or to make some “real-world” application.

For example, in my FYS last week, I started one class session off with a question: What’s the difference between learning facts and ideas (on the one hand) and analyzing them (on the other)? I wondered whether this question might seem abstract or even boring, but students jumped right in. We decided that, while recalling and understanding information needs to come first, we wanted to move on to more complex tasks like breaking the information down into its constituent parts and then maybe stepping back to view the big picture.

We then moved into the lesson, based on Doris Bergen’s book War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. I pointed out how Bergen introduces Chapter 4 by explaining that, after the conquest of Poland, the Germans began to implement their program to make space for the master race in two ways: by sowing dissension among Poles, Jews, and ethnic Germans in a “divide and conquer” scheme and by giving those who would cooperate with their race-and-space agenda the incentive to outdo each other by trying different strategies.

Students then broke up into small groups. Each group took a few pages that listed the important details — German policies like limiting social contact between Germans and Poles and giving Adolf Eichmann a free hand to organize transports of Jews from incorporated territories into German-occupied Poland. A representative from each group wrote the details on the board. We moved on to analyze the details. We broke them down into policies that involved a “divide and conquer” strategy and those that encouraged experimentation and rivalry among anyone who wanted to please their German overlords. We justified our conclusions. Then we stepped back to view the big picture by asking how all the policies enabled the Germans to accomplish the ultimate goal of claiming Polish land for the “master race.”

In the end, I passed out index cards and asked students to record one thing they had learned in class that day. I, too, had learned something. I can keep them (and myself!) engaged by starting with a hook, planning one or two active learning exercises, and then wrapping up with a strong ending. It’s as easy as that.