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Teaching Large Classes

Posted by on Thursday, January 31, 2013 in News.

By Cynthia J. Brame, CFT Assistant Director

Teaching large classes can pose particular challenges. How do you personalize interaction in a class with more than 100—or even more than 200—students? How do you promote student engagement when it’s so easy for a student to hide in the crowd? How do you provide helpful feedback without burying yourself with grading?

This Conversation on Teaching will provide a forum for Vanderbilt instructors to share some of the strategies they have developed or adapted from the literature to deal with the challenges of large classes. Three faculty panelists will kick-start the conversation by describing some of their successful strategies and ongoing challenges:

Andrew Van Schaack Assistant Professor of the Practice, HOD
Sandra Rosenthal Jack and Pamela Egan Chair, Chemistry
Carl Johnson Stevenson Professor, Biological Sciences








Tuesday, February 26, 4:10-5:30, CFT workshop space

I recently talked to our panelists about key strategies they have developed for teaching large classes successfully, as well as to Terry Page, an experienced teacher of large classes, Professor of Biological Sciences, and winner of the 2011 Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Our conversations focused in part on three major themes.

Promoting student engagement

Unsurprisingly, all four faculty members emphasized the importance of promoting student engagement in class, although they use different mechanisms to do so. Terry Page and Carl Johnson noted that students’ motivation is key for learning, and that it’s vital to convey how the material is relevant to students’ interests in order to maintain that motivation.  Both talked about  using well-known diseases to illustrate basic biological principles in large majors’ courses that are heavily populated by premedical students, and Carl said that he talks about sex at every opportunity in non-majors’ human biology courses—because what college student is not interested in sex?

Sandy Rosenthal helps maintain student interest by setting up class so that students’ have opportunities to talk—and have clear cues about when they can do so. Before class begins, she plays music, both to help her focus (a vestige of her days as a basketball player) and to give students time to talk. When the music stops, it serves as a signal to students that it’s time to focus on class. During class, Sandy gives students time to talk at regular intervals, such as while answering “clicker” questions, watching demonstrations, or during periods when she needs a prolonged period to write on the board.

Andy Van Schaack typically focuses his class around questions, and he ensures students are prepared for these discussions by giving 15 reading quizzes over the course of the semester. For each reading assignment, he gives the students four questions. At the beginning of class on a reading quiz day, he puts up the four questions, then chooses one on the spot to serve as the question for the 10-minute quiz. He says that this strategy not only helps ensure that students are prepared for rich class discussions but also that they arrive at class on time and ready-to-work.

Preventing honor code violations

Cheating is a widespread problem at American universities, and the anticipated anonymity of large classes can exacerbate the problem. Sandy Rosenthal structures her classes such that her greatest authority is reserved for protection of the honor code. She consciously avoids challenging students on issues that she sees as less important (such as laptop use in class) so that her clear warnings about cheating on exams carry real weight. In addition, she notes that it can be useful to use multiple versions on exams, to print exams on different colored paper, and to assign seats so that cheating can be tracked.

Andy Van Schaack also uses in-class strategies to avoid cheating on tests, such as different versions of exams on different colored paper and instructing students to sit far from each other and away from friends. He also asks students to put their electronic devices (including cell phones) in their bags, and to leave them at the front of the room. He also uses out-of-class tools to prevent plagiarism on other types of assignments. His syllabus devotes a full page to the honor code, and a “Syllabus FAQ” assignment ensures that students read these policies. In addition, students in his classes complete an online plagiarism tutorial from the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Finally, all writing assignments are checked for plagiarism by using SafeAssignment, a Blackboard-associated tool that checks submitted assignments against documents available on the internet, in the ProQuest ABI/Inform database, in Vanderbilt’s SafeAssignment archives, and in a global reference database generated from assignments shared from other Blackboard clients.

Managing logistics

Managing logistics is a major challenge when teaching large classes. Terry Page and Carl Johnson find that one of the biggest challenges they face is writing exam questions that are correctly interpreted by more than 400 students. They therefore work together to develop the exams, with each of them focusing on his area of greatest strength (for Carl, multiple choice items; for Terry, essay questions) but also scrutinizing the other’s questions to help anticipate—and prevent—student misinterpretations.

Sandy Rosenthal and Andy Van Schaack have both found email to be a large challenge in the past and have therefore developed strategies to optimize email interactions. Sandy’s biggest adjustment was to ban homework questions from email, requiring instead that students use office hours to answer homework questions. Andy limits student emails to 140 characters (not including salutation and the signature) — the length of a Tweet –in order to encourage clear and concise communication, and tells students that issues requiring more explanation can be addressed in office hours (which he schedules in 10-minute blocks using the online tool Scheduly).

The value of TAs for grading exams and writing assignments and proctoring exams cannot be minimized.  Carl, Terry, and Andy all rely on TAs to do almost all of the grading in their classes using instructor-developed rubrics, freeing them up to focus on other class issues.

The benefits

Although they recognized the challenges of teaching large classes, Carl Johnson and Terry Page were especially eloquent in describing the payoffs of these classes. “The energy of the large group sucks you in, energizes you,” said Terry. “The students are really energetic and want to learn,” added Carl, suggesting that the students’ energy and desire to learn closes the loop by motivating him to be a more engaged and energetic teacher.

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