Some strategies for a teaching a very large class

I have only had a few semesters of experience with teaching a class of 250+ students, but already I have seen a good deal of what works and what doesn’t.  My hope in this post is to share some of my experiences, both good and bad, with other instructors in similar situations.

First of all, the students need to feel like their contributions, amongst the masses, are important.  Although a large class allows the instructor to reach a large number of students, it is important that each student have a voice.  In my course, we have had the benefit of 14 graduate teaching assistants, and been able to break the students into smaller groups that get regular interactions with the TA’s.  This has proven invaluable to engage the students, and attendance records alone show how much the students value these smaller groups: the attendance in smaller groups was far higher than in the full-class gatherings, even though both were “required”.

In the full-class gatherings, it is very easy for a student to disappear if they so choose, and so it is important to try to address this before it becomes an issue.  One of the first things that can be done is to incentivise attendance–either through quizzes, sign-in sheets, etc.  But you also need to make sure that these full-class gatherings are worthwhile to the students.

Once the students are regularly attending the full-class gatherings, it is necessary to engage them individually.  Techniques like think-pair-share can do wonders, and think-pair-share often works really well after asking the class a question that no one has the answer to, or after polling the class.  Giving the students the opportunity to talk amongst themselves does a lot to keep the class energetic, and it is almost never an issue to get the students back on track afterwards.  It also tends to help to provide the students some active way of engaging during the lecture, something like having them fill in portions of the notes instead of just allowing them to sit and watch the lecture unfold before them.

All of that said, large classes are still a challenge.  The lack of a personal connection between the students and instructor allow for anonymity on the part of the students, and the instructor can begin to be thought of in the same way that TV actors are–a distant individual whose role is primarily entertainment.

How memorization fits into a curriculum

I recently took a closed-book exam in a graduate-level engineering course.  The expectation was that through this exam, I would be able to demonstrated my ability to apply various complicated engineering tools to a variety of problems, but before I could apply the tools, I had to memorize them.  So, in a tradition that has been carrier on for years by students around the world, I crammed information into my head that would inevitably be lost in a few weeks.

As I am hoping to pursue a career in academia, this “wasted” effort in memorizing troubles me.  It is not that I cannot see value to memorizing, it is just that the format in which it is being applied does not appear to be working.  Instead, I am proposing that we examine why we have students memorize, and then focus on how we can help them to do this better.

It has been my experience that the primary purpose of memorization is fluency.  Imagine trying to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” with a Spanish-English dictionary for each word.  The lack of fluency would make it a difficult experience.  The same is true of basic math, such as the multiplication tables.  Without possessing some degree of fluency, it is difficult to work through very many math problems in a reasonable amount of time.  But these are rather simple examples, and these are areas where it is generally accepted that students should be practicing memorization.  I am proposing that we incorporate memorization in higher level courses, even in engineering course that do not typically emphasize memorization.  The reason for this is that we speak our own language in engineering (not a really surprising statement to you non-engineers), and it is important for us to be fluent in this language to be able to expand our learning beyond what we have been given in a classroom.  This is analogous to a student who has moved from learning to read to reading to learn.  Once students become more fluent in the material, they can go off on their own and read it to learn more.

Using exams alone to promote memorization doesn’t seem to be working.  Rather, regular practice with the material to be memorized is key.  For instance, imagine telling students at the end of class specifically what they will be responsible for memorizing for the next class.  Then at the beginning of the next class, the students have 3 minutes to write down and turn in what they had to memorize.  The specific topics can evolve over the semester, but it is important that there be a lot of repetition throughout the course.  Now the students can gain fluency through quizzes so that on the exam, they can focus on the problem solving.

Cause and Effect? or Shooting darts in the dark?

shooting darts in the dark

Shooting darts in the dark

I was discussing with a friend recently about how success as an undergrad is required to get into a decent grad school or job, but the skills necessary to be successful as an undergrad are very different than the skills necessary to be successful as a grad student or in industry.  This cause and effect becomes even more distorted when moving from the role of graduate student to faculty member.  It would appear that many of the skills necessary to be successful in a career are acquired outside of the classroom, but students are ranked according to performance within the classroom.  We have moved from a cause and effect scenario to shooting darts in the dark.

Now some might argue that the status quo has worked for years, so why bother changing it?  And this is definitely a valid point, but I am proposing that we could improve upon the situation.  I’m not suggesting a radical change, but rather something that could be implemented slowly, so that we can test how well it works, and revise it as necessary.  This is similar to Subway deciding to sell pizzas; they don’t switch overnight, rather they test it in more and more restaurants until it has been proven, and only then is it implemented fully.

I am suggesting that we incorporate more projects into the curriculum, an incorporation that can be introduced as slowly as needed.  But a key necessity of these projects is that that they must give the students something to show when the interview for jobs.  Computer programmers have created an excellent forum for this through open-source software.  Prospective employers can readily see the abilities of a computer science major through an authentic application.  Other disciplines can certainly follow suit.  The important thing here is that the projects be authentic, and that they highlight an individual’s skills.

Now I do not claim to have invented this idea, but I can see that this concept has not yet been put into practice.  Even in fields like engineering, fields that are inherently applied, this has not been implemented in a large way.  So, if it is not yet being done, another proponent pushing it into conversation is another step towards implementation.

Why engineering should be EASY…

Engineering is notoriously a difficult major for undergrads.  Just think about the attrition rate, and discussions of “weed out classes”.  But I would argue that engineering shouldn’t be notoriously difficult, and that anyone with even a small amount of intrinsic motivation should be able to be successful as an engineer.  To make this change though, we need to make some modifications to the way that we teach engineering.

Engineering is the study of how stuff works and how we can turn this knowledge to our benefit.  And most of this study is built around phenomena that can easily be observed in everyday life.  For instance, did you know that you can’t push a rope?  Or did you know that water flows downhill?  These are the kind of principles that we learn as engineers, and then we combine a handful of these simple concepts to create more complicated concepts.

Now when these observable phenomena are typically presented in published paper, there tends to be a lot of field-specific jargon and high-level math involved.  The jargon is used because it conveys a lot of information quickly, and in a small amount of space.  And students rarely work directly from published papers, instead they receive the information second- or third-hand from a professor or author who has attempted to simplify the published work into easier math and jargon.  Unfortunately, every time that the material is translated, first by the initial publication, and then by the professor, the material is further and further separated from observable phenomena and real-life experiences.  By the time that the students see the material, it has been turned into a procedure to be followed, often blindly.

Many of us have heard the story of a daughter, while watching her mother cook a Thanksgiving turkey, asks her mother why she cut 6 inches off the end of the turkey.  The mother replies that she doesn’t know, but that her own mother always did that.  So they go and talk to the grandmother, who has the same response about just following her own mother.  When they finally go and talk to the great-grandmother, the great-grandmother explains that her oven was too small to fit a large turkey, so she always had to cut 6 inches off of the turkey.  Here we have a procedure that was blindly memorized, similar to how many engineering students are taught.

In response to this separation between jargon and reality, I have attempted to realign the two in a way that neither is compromised.  This way students can make use of the benefits of the jargon, while not losing the conceptual understanding.  Using an approach similar to glossy magazines, I have created a website that teaches primarily through colorful images, with text providing support to the images (counter to most textbooks and courses).  I know better than to claim that I have resolved this issue entirely, but I hope that I have pushed the discussion in a fruitful direction.

The website is called Conceptual Engineering, and I have some sample images shown below.  By clicking on an image, you will be taken to the page where that image lives.

Putting it all together for granddaddy equation from Conceptual Engineering

Here is a visual approach to a notoriously difficult fluid dynamics equation

The photoelectric effect from Conceptual Engineering

This topic was so difficult, that Einstein won a Nobel prize for it. In reality, it can be explained using baseballs and bottles


Creativity and anger

As both an engineer and an academic, one of the phrases that I hear very often is “thinking outside of the box”.  Creativity is seen as one of the most valuable tools for engineers and academics, but it is also one of the most difficult tools to teach or cultivate.  There have been many books and papers written on this subject, but there is still much that could be improved.  In an attempt to further the cause of cultivating creativity, I would like to enter a “case study” into the discussion.

This past weekend, I was with some friends, and I proposed a new idea that I had just come up with.  The idea had popped into my head that morning, and in my mind, had the potential to make a small impact on the world; I was proposing a separation platform that could be used to cure cancer and disease.  In my mind, this was an exciting topic, and even though I did not have any details worked out, I felt that my friends would share my excitement because these were the same friends that would tell me that my artwork was “good”.  These were some of my closest friends, who have supported me for years, but their reactions surprised me.  They got angry!

The hubris and ego that they perceived really set them off.  Who was I to come up with a solution that millions of people have been looking for over thousands of years?

After the anger settled, the next stage was criticism.  “Haven’t scientists used that technique before?”  “Do you know how difficult that would actually be to put into practice?” “Are you prepared to dedicate the time and energy necessary to deal with clinical trials?”  The questions went on for a little while, and the anger subsided (perhaps because my friends were beginning to feel like they were “winning” the conversation…).

Later that day, after I had had some time to think over the events that had unfolded very differently than I had expected, I began to see that this response was not that unusual.  So I began to question why this was the typical response, and I came up with a few ideas:

Societies throughout history have valued experience, and ours is no different.  So what is experience, but a long list of things that don’t work, with a few success stories sprinkled through?  And before we have had the time to develop our own experiences, we try build on the shoulders of our predecessors–some might call this an education.  Thus, much of our time spent in a classroom is learning how to put boundaries on our thoughts, a skill that is valuable in many areas of life (imagine if your boss decided she was going to make up the math used to calculate your paycheck).  But perhaps we need to develop a way to put these boundaries on hold every now and then, to produce ideas that will not be graded or evaluated.

I wonder how many people will get angry after reading this, and then settle into criticism…


Engineering vs. Teaching

So often, as an engineer in academia, I hear about the tension between research and teaching.  In most cases, it appears that professors tend to fall into either the role of teacher or researcher, and then they spend almost all of their time in this single role.  Ironically, engineering is a discipline that commonly finds ways to meet multiple objectives without compromise.  For instance, does anyone know of a phone, that also takes pictures, and lets you watch youtube videos?  Or for a more esoteric example, how about an alternative to CFCs (that aerosol that contributed to the hole in the ozone layer) that would be effective and economical (this solution worked out so well, that most non-engineers don’t even think about it)?  And even when it is not possible to meet every objective, engineers are taught to compromise, except we tend to use the word optimize.  And when we are trying to optimize a scenario, it is not typical that a solution involves all of one thing and none of another.  Therefore, I am proposing that the optimal role, as an engineer in academia, will involve a healthy amount of both teaching and research.