It is difficult to predict what the dynamics of a college class will be like at the beginning of a semester. Two sections of the same subject taught by the exact same instructor can have radical differences in how students communicate with one another in class.
Since student interaction is not a consideration in the software program that manages college registration and class composition, it is exciting for an instructor when the system actually creates a class of students with all the right chemistry for an engaging semester.
It happened this past semester in my Digital Marketing class at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business. This was not your typical college class, where students are very measured and cautious, fearing they will say something inappropriate. This particular combination of 25 second-semester seniors was outspoken, and they behaved more like they were at a Thursday night happy hour with friends than in a college classroom.
Over the semester, I’ve tried to figure out what made this one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. Here are the variables that I think contributed to such an engaging semester:
AN UNUSUAL CLASSROOM
The dean’s office informed me there were no traditional classrooms in the business school available at the time the Digital Marketing class was scheduled. As a result, the class was assigned to a newly constructed room called the iLab — a hip name for a fancy conference room.
The chairs, tables, and modern audio and video equipment in the room sent an immediate message to the students: this class would be different from others they had taken in the building. On day one, the tone of the class was more open and freer, primarily because of the optics of the classroom.
CLASS LEVEL PURITY
Teaching an elective class comprised entirely of second-semester seniors is a vastly different pedagogical experience than teaching one that has a combination of sophomores, juniors, and seniors trying to fulfill a business school core requirement.
Usually, the instructor has to front-load assignments for second-semester seniors, because after spring break there is a significant decline in motivation. However, I was surprised to find that these particular seniors returned from their March beach vacations more energized to participate in class than before they left. Our class discussions became more enlightening when everyone realized they only had five weeks left in their undergraduate careers.
STUDENTS WERE COMFORTABLE WITH EACH OTHER
The class was not a group of homogenous seniors. While they probably would not meet today’s diversity standards, there were representatives from all factions on campus, including sororities, fraternities, independents, athletes, artists, scholars, and a few where no label was appropriate.
Their ease in conversing with each other was surprising. It took enormous pressure off me to force discussion. I simply set the agenda and then moderated. What a refreshing change from other classes, where getting students to participate can be challenging.
PRIVATE FACEBOOK GROUP DAILY POSTS
Part of students’ ease in getting along so well can be attributed to a requirement to post in a private Facebook group about subjects discussed during class.
The students made over 1,500 posts during a 15-week semester. Their posts started very seriously, with references to articles that reinforced class discussions. However, within a month or so, the posts became more personal and engaging. After discussing a Starbucks case in class later in the semester, there were no posts about trends in historic coffee consumption. Instead, there were photos of students in their cars waiting for drinks in the drive-thru lane or videos of them consuming mocha cookie crumble frappuccinos after a difficult exam.
WHAT MADE IT WORK SO WELL?
Since the class ended a few weeks ago, I keep trying to analyze why this particular teaching experience was so special. Was it just a fluke of the registration process, or did my slight changes in the curriculum energize class discussions? Perhaps it was the 10:30 a.m. class time, as opposed to a class scheduled in the afternoon, that made the difference.
The more I try to figure out why this particular class worked so well, the more I realize I may never find an answer. Maybe this class simply proves that when all higher education variables align as they are supposed to, there is no better place to be inspired and learn than a college classroom.
Bill Bergman is a lecturer in marketing at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, where he teaches in the undergraduate and MBA programs. He has over four decades of experience working in marketing, advertising and publishing. He has been teaching in the Robins School full-time for six years and was an adjunct prior to that for four years. He has also been an adjunct at VCU and SMU.