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Teaching Toolbox
Teaching - Bursting At The Seams

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz   

Large class sizes may help universities balance their budgets, but they pose major challenges to even the most experienced educators. When tightly packed, students tend to be more disruptive. And it's much harder to learn every name or provide extra help to those who need it. But the sad fact is that overcrowding is the new reality, particularly with so many state budgets in the red. Here are some hints to help you cope.

Details. Develop a detailed syllabus and course outline, with course title, number, prerequisites, corequisites, name, and contact information (office location and office hours, e-mail address, office phone number—and if you want—home phone number with directions of when not to call). Allow students to make appointments with you via e-mail. List the teaching assistant's name and office hours. Students are most interested in assessments: Are tests open or closed book? Is teamwork encouraged on homework? Does attendance count? What about makeup exams and regrading procedures? And points for homework and tests? What about the grading scale? (We prefer using absolute scales as guarantees.)

Goals. Students want to know how the course fits into their future, so explain how this course will help them become better engineers. If you expect certain student behavior, like turning in homework on time, include that expectation in the syllabus. Talk about the need for honesty, putting the discussion in the context of a university honor code or the Code of Ethics of Engineers.

Schedule. The course outline can range from a loose weekly list of topics to a detailed daily schedule. However, in a large class you must list dates for tests and large projects so that the students are able to plan.

Preparation. Handouts for hundreds of students clearly require advance preparation. Plan to have help in distributing assignments and handouts—otherwise it can take too long. Think about procedures for collecting homework and exams. Lectures also need to be more formal and more carefully prepared. Since chalk boards are difficult to see from the back of large classrooms, overheads and PowerPoint tend to work better, but don't move too quickly through the prepared material.

Learning principles. Class participation becomes very problematic when the audience is large, but a little creativity helps, such as preplanned small group activities. Students need the opportunity to ask questions both in and out of class. Occasional "one-minute quizzes" that ask the students to write about one muddy point from the lecture work well. Variety during lecture periods also helps keep the students interested. Weekly quizzes (announced in advance) help prevent procrastination. Develop an organized method for obtaining feedback from the students.

Rapport. Learn names. Otherwise students feel like numbers, and numbers are more likely to be disruptive or cheat. Taking photographs and matching the students to the photos helps. As much as possible, provide opportunities for individual attention: Come to class early and stay late. Hold office hours and help sessions, particularly before tests. Use e-mail. Have a class committee provide feedback.

TA assistance. Discuss your expectations with the TA before the semester starts. Ask the TA to attend class, take notes, and make them available to students. Train the TA in grading and university procedures, including confidentiality.

Impact. Although large classes mean a lot of work, they can provide you with a great deal of personal satisfaction from having a positive impact on a large number of students.


Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at

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