Psych superclass grows in size and personal supports

Psychology professor Mike Atkinson is renowned for compelling, personalized 'superclasses'.

Mike Atkinson has done this before.

The first time he redesigned his course and tripled class size was in the early 1990s – in response to government cuts, not a pandemic.

Back then, he wasn’t moving online but into a renovated Alumni Hall, which had been retrofitted to seat 1,200 Introduction to Psychology students for Western’s first “superclass.”

“Everybody said it would fail,” recalled Atkinson. “People said, ‘are you out of your mind? This won’t work.’”

But it did. Students overwhelmingly praised the course and its success made national headlines. Atkinson was awarded a 3M National Teaching Fellowship for instruction lauded as a model of its kind.

This year, he has been preparing for another pivot – transitioning his class online, along with hundreds of Western instructors, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There will be challenges, especially for a professor who believes strongly in performance-based and face-to-face teaching.

But by keeping student needs top-of-mind and offering students virtual support, he believes it can be done – and done well.

“The way it is set up, I think it’s going to work perhaps even better. I’m trying to put this together in a way that students can succeed.” ~‘Superclass’ psychology professor Mike Atkinson

His course has received rave reviews for his performance-style of teaching and his lectures’ production quality, which includes music, sound and visual effects. But he also makes sure to recognize students’ identity by making sure to move around the room, talking to students, even wishing them a happy birthday.

“You’ve got to make it personal. It’s not so much class size that matters, it is the quality of what you do that matters,” said Atkinson, known among students as Dr. Mike.

This year his class grows to 3,000 students, who will sign in remotely – from different countries and time zones around the world – for his pre-recorded asynchronous lectures and for live synchronous tutorials.

“It’s very hard to give students identity online because it’s so anonymous,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to develop rapport. So, I’m trying to build stuff in to get that going.”

He has introduced tutorials this year, with 30 students in each group, to enable students to connect with teaching assistants and with each other. Students will be graded on participation.

These tutorials might well be unique in that they will run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET), seven days a week, in order to cover all possible time zones.

For the same reason, his lecture videos will be asynchronous and still demand involvement, he said.

Students won’t be able to move on to the next set without answering a few questions.

“It’s a matter of getting people to do things and think about things,” he said. “They have to reflect on it a little bit. I think there will be more reflection than there has been in the past.”

Knowing this has been a tough year for many students, with high levels of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Atkinson has also prepared a new component of his class called The World Has Changed to talk about timely issues.

He is confident today’s students, like those who gave his first superclass courses rave reviews, can also thrive in this new format.

From other distance studies courses he has taught, he has a tip for new online teachers: Put content into “meaningful chunks,” he said.  “My magic number is 10 minutes. People will hang in with you for that long.

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