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.