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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.