The best thing I learned from Michael Sandel

Like many others, I have enjoyed watching some of Michael Sandel’s lectures from his well-known Harvard undergraduate class, “Justice”. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the content of Sandel’s class and a course I teach myself (collaboratively with one or two colleagues). Ours is called “Life, Death, and Morality”. Like Sandel’s class, ours is very large. We teach it to about 300 students on one campus, and to 150 students on a second campus. We deliver two 1-hour lectures to each group, each week. The students also attend a 1-hour tutorial each week in smaller groups, of around 15–20. And also like Sandel’s class, we deal with Trolley problems.

Our class is very successful, and very satisfying to teach – I don’t think there is much that we could do a great deal better; but I was still curious to see if there was anything I could learn from Sandel’s approach.

There were some things that he did which I could not translate very well to my teaching context. For instance, I’m envious that Sandel could find three undergraduates to be “Team Libertarian”, fielding objections and questions from the rest of the audience, and doing a very respectable job at articulating reasons in favour of their view. Libertarianism is a much less prominent intellectual position in the Australian political scene, and I very much doubt I could count on finding even one first-year student, willing and able to defend the view in such a public setting.

But there was at least one aspect of his technique that I have happily and successfully adopted. The technique is so simple I am almost embarrassed to say it: asking students their names.

My memory for names is reasonably good, but I am not going to put in the time necessary to learn even one quarter of the names in lectures this large. So previously, I simply never thought to try. I would occasionally call upon the individuals to answer questions (usually after the students have had the opportunity to discuss the question amongst themselves, following a peer instruction question) but after offering their opinion, the student would slip back into the wash of anonymity.

As I recall it, Sandel would close almost every encounter between himself and a student with the question: “And what’s your name?”. He would sometimes then refer back to an issue raised by that student, and use the student’s name again.

Intrigued, I tried it. The result has been surprisingly powerful.

Immediately upon asking for a name, in the first lecture, there is a palpable change in the atmosphere in the class. One can see the students sit a little more erect in their seats, their attention sharpened. And when I refer back to something the student said earlier, and identify who said it, there is almost a collective frisson.

It is hard to say exactly what the students are thinking, but I like to think it is something like: “we are participating in a conversation here! We are not just recipients of content – what we say matters.”

Afterwards, I try to write down the names of everyone who spoke in the lecture. Glancing at that list again before the next lecture often helps to bed in a few more names. I probably remember only a fraction of them between weeks. But this does not seem to matter. If I get a comment from a student in a future lecture whose name I do not recall, I simply apologise and ask for their name again. When I do manage to remember a name between lectures, it often produces astonished looks from the student in question: “He remembers!”

Reflecting on this, I think it is instructive. It illustrates why large classes are, typically, not very effective ways of teaching. In a crowd, as an anonymous participant, what one thinks does not matter. You can be a silent participant, and you will not be letting anyone down. But in a conversation, as a named individual, you have an obligation to follow the thread. You have your reputation at stake if you say something foolish. You have “skin in the game”. Even for students who never speak, the possibility that they might be called upon, or the fact that their friend has been called upon, can be powerfully motivating.

Small classes can capture all these motivational effects without the need for any special artifice. It is in the large class setting that we need to make special effort to engage students. Ensuring that students give their names is a remarkably effective method to do this. I recommend it.