UNL to continue using Grand Theatre as lecture hall

The biggest surprise was that no one bought concessions. The non-surprise: students had few difficulties adapting to Psychology 181 at the Grand Theatre in downtown Lincoln, and their final grades were nearly identical to previous years.

And that was exactly what the professor, Debra Hope, expected. The positive feedback means the course will be offered in the theater again next semester.

For years, Hope had taught the introductory psychology course in back-to-back sections of about 150 students each in Burnett Hall. The fall 2011 experiment with holding a single section that could accommodate up to 400 students tested the efficacy of large classroom teaching at UNL. But because UNL has no suitable classrooms of that size, the Grand was chosen.

Some 389 students enrolled in the course but about 60 transferred or dropped; in the end 335 students, 75 percent of them freshman, stayed in the class. Hope said she always encourages juniors and seniors to transfer because she spends a good deal of time talking about how freshmen can succeed and upper division students report that to be tedious.

UNL offered lapboards for students to use for writing surfaces, but only about half the students used them regularly, Hope said. There were complaints about the distance from campus, but Hope said that while she knew a few students were inconvenienced (about 18 had a class prior to her 9:30 a.m. session), she had little sympathy for students who could simply have rolled out of bed a bit earlier to make it on time. She allowed students who needed to make an 11 a.m. class to leave early.

Hope said student test scores compared favorably with previous years, until the fourth exam. But she had a medical emergency and missed the final lecture, with her TAs taking over on short notice. Had she given that lesson, which preps students for the final exam, she thinks the students would have done better. The drop-off in scores was not significant, she noted.

Hope said having her TAs attend her lectures helped them to more fully integrate lectures with the recitation sections, which she said was a benefit.

“I loved having my TAs be so involved, which is something I cannot do if there are multiple sections because of the time commitment,” she said. “The recitations were better and it showed in the recitation points that students were learning more.”

Hope said the Grand Theatre’s acoustics and technology were useful; she described the technical support from UNL’s Information Services and the Grand as “outstanding.”

Hope felt the theater offered fewer distractions than Burnett 115, where she typically teaches the class, but a “significant minority” said they found it hard to focus.

The course attracted media attention early in the semester, so students had to get used to being filmed or interviewed, she said. But that novelty wore off quickly.

Hope enjoys teaching the large section, but said there are limitations.

“Clearly, this isn’t the format for senior seminars. But if you are teaching sections of 100 to 150, you might as well scale up to 300 to 400. It’s more efficient use of your time and the space. It’s not your only way of doing a college class, but it’s certainly one way to teach,” she said. “Not all faculty can do this; many don’t like the idea of ‘performance’ teaching, but I love it. I think it’s a blast.”

— Kim Hachiya, University Communications