One New Thing: Using Book Clubs to Combat Anonymity in Large Lecture Classes

Written by Casey Stockstill, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology & Criminology

Students often feel anonymous in large lecture halls. This anonymity can prevent collaboration and thoughtful discussion. I wanted to increase students’ connections with each other. Many lecture-style classes assign grades based on a few high-stakes exams, which gives students only one mode to demonstrate learning. I wanted to offer a mix of assignments to students.

But, in my case, the logistical challenges seemed steep. I teach a 100-student course called Understanding Social Life. It is the introduction to the Sociology major, and it also fulfills the SI-Society & Culture requirement. There are no TAs or graders; it’s just me and 100 students in a stadium-style lecture hall.

Book Clubs were my solution. I selected two award-winning, sociological monographs about the college experience. I used Canvas to randomly assign students to Book Clubs with four students each. They remained in this Book Club throughout the quarter. Book Clubs worked like this: (1) They introduced themselves to their group on the Canvas “Groups” platform. The group chose an on-campus location for their Book Club meeting. (2) They read the book. (3) They submitted a 300-word book review two days before Book Club Day. (4) On Book Club Day, the students met with their Book Club instead of coming to lecture. I was adamant that the group meet during the planned class time to avoid creating scheduling conflicts for students with jobs or other time commitments. Students submitted a group selfie as evidence that they met. They structured their own discussion. (5) After Book Club Day, students wrote a short reflection on how the discussion went. They repeated these steps for the second book.

Did Book Clubs decrease the anonymity of the large lecture hall? For some groups, it did. Most groups met in Anderson Academic Commons. Students described candid discussions of the book’s successes and failures, and a fair amount of self-disclosure about their own experiences at DU. One Book Club began to sit by each other in class. Another Book Club studied for the first exam together. Some students asked their Book Club for notes if they had to miss class. On the other hand, one student told me their other Book Club had not read the whole book. Like all group assignments, some groups were more successful than others.

There were also some less anticipated benefits. I think there is something special about reading a book. Some of my sophomore students said they enjoyed reading a whole book, admitting that this was the first time they had read a full book in a class. One student mentioned that her grandpa had read the book with her. Another student’s dad read the book with her.

For me, Book Clubs had the logistical benefit of providing time to grade the 100 written assignments. Because I cancelled a class for Book Club, I could use that prep time and the time I would’ve been lecturing to work on grading the essays.

If you are considering trying Book Clubs in your class, here are four things to consider. First, how prepared are students to read a book in your field? I casually discussed how to read the book, but I think a providing short guide on how sociological books are organized would have helped students.

Second, how will you balance the books with other readings? In my class, I nixed a textbook in favor of a mix of shorter, popular articles and some original research articles from our top journals. Students struggled to extract the main point from these different types of writing. I did a mid-quarter survey, and students said they were overwhelmed with the amount of reading. [Though they also said they spent 0-4 per week reading outside of class, which is far below DU’s expectations.] I wonder if explicit coaching on the types of reading and the time required would have changed students’ perspectives from the beginning. Regardless, adding full books to your syllabus requires carefully trimming other readings.

Third, consider book selection. I chose books about college because I hoped they would be relevant to students. Students did say the books were more interesting because they could relate to them. In your field, books about popular issues or books written for a general audience might be successful.

Finally, and most importantly, consider the goals of any related writing assignments. The book review helped ensure students finished the book and initiated reflection before the group discussion. But I was the (implicit) audience for these reviews. In the future, I may have students write a letter to their Book Club, and then read each other’s letters before meeting. This might deepen conversation and make the writing assignment more interesting for students.

Overall, I think Book Clubs were successful at combating lecture hall anonymity without creating untenable extra work on my part. I plan to use them again.