Reflections on teaching a large class

How to cite this article: M. J. Kumar, “Reflections on teaching a large class”, IETE Technical Review, Vol.28, Issue 4, pp.275-278, July-August, 2011.

Reflections on Teaching a Large Class

Dr. M.Jagadesh Kumar, Editor-in-Chief, IETE Technical Review

NXP(Philips)Chair Professor, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi 110016, email: mamidala@ee.iitd.ac.in

Home: http://web.iitd.ac.in/~mamidala

With increased intake in educational institutes, large classes have become an inevitable reality. Some think that large classes are difficult to handle. There are certainly some issues with large classes. The first casualty is our inability to know the students intimately and provide individual attention.  Remembering students’ names is difficult when the class size exceeds 60-80. Some teachers may feel outnumbered or anxious in front of a large class. Late comers, people who chat or display a totally unresponsive attitude may distract or discourage you. Since both audio and video facilities are required in large classes, you may be worried about their possible failure and the consequences.  Answer script evaluation and grading are time consuming. Classes could be noisy and so on.

However, it is important that we evolve methods to handle these difficulties and adapt to the changing circumstances. There is no point harping on good old theme: “small classes – better interaction and better learning”. Large classes are here to stay. Let me share some of my experiences or strategies that I have used, in terms of management, assessment and teaching, to enhance the learning experience in a large class room. This semester (Jan-May 2011), I taught a large first year B.Tech course “EEL102 – Principles of Electrical Engineering”. There were 220 students in my class.

a)    Visual aids in a large class

My lectures were held in a large class room with multiple big screens and a public address system. I always used the PA system while giving lectures. This will help you rise over the din and does not strain your voice. Using a black board for such a large class becomes impractical. This can easily be overcome by using either a tablet PC or a digital visual projector. Using a tablet PC, one could save anything that is written in the class for a later reference or for posting on the web for the students to read. The digital visual projector was very handy to me for writing on a paper and project it or show a three dimensional object such as a transformer. During the lecture, I could switch between the two devices seamlessly. The biggest advantage I found was that these devices helped me to avoid turning my back to the students while writing. Before the semester starts, get to know how to use these aids to avoid any possible embarrassment and wastage of time during the lecture when you cannot make them work. There is no doubt in my mind that these tools are essential in a large class for an effective engagement with the students in contrast to the good old blackboard writing.

b)    Presenting the course objective

The first daunting task for me was motivating the students to get interested in Electrical Engineering since the students in my class were all from Chemical engineering and Textile engineering streams. Therefore, I first painted a broad picture of electrical engineering using some interesting anecdotes of some “mad” scientists and explained to them the difference between natural laws and income-tax laws. It brought cheers on the faces of the students. I then laid out a well defined plan of what we were going to learn in the whole semester. I firmly believe that making the objective of the course known to the students, right at the beginning of the semester, makes them realize my expectations from them in terms of the value addition to their knowledge and also defining their expectations from the course.

c)     The feeling of “Today’s Lecture has gone well”

To teach well, knowing the subject is not sufficient. One needs to have passion and a well thought out plan for each class on how you will introduce and develop the topic, mixed with some suspense and anticipation. Making the concepts clear using simple everyday analogies and following up with an application of the concepts make the student confident about what they have learned. This requires a good effort and I need to prepare for each lecture as if I am teaching this course for the first time. In this semester, a lot of my time was taken away for conducting a national test called GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering) of which I was the Chairman at IIT Delhi. As a result, on some occasions, after reaching the lecture hall at 8.00 AM, since I was completely deprived of rest due to stress and work load in GATE operations, I was almost speaking from sleep during the lecture. It was on these few days that I did not get the feeling of being in the clouds after the lecture. However, when the lecture is delivered well, the feeling is ecstatic. On Mondays and Thursdays, at 8.00 AM, I looked forward for my 90 minute EEL102 lectures because facing these students with a large smile on their faces and sharing with them what I know provided an opportunity for me to relax from my work pressure. Anything else could be a burden but certainly not teaching.

d)    Questions in the class

I was kept on my toes by curious students who did not hesitate asking questions. While it is important to moderate a persistent student, it is all the more important to convey through your body language and attitude that questions are most welcome.  One wrong move, the students will be put off. In large classes, often students may not come forward to ask questions. To overcome this problem, I used to put questions to the students, particularly to those who appeared a little disinterested. Sometimes, I used to call a student to the dias to summarize the key points of the previous lecture. I often helped the student in providing the missing points to complete the summary. This was very reassuring to the students to know that they need not feel slighted in front of everyone if they could not summarize effectively. Pitting the left half of the class against the right half to quickly give an answer to a question I posed, often led to a healthy competition and laughter.

e)    Discipline in the class

A disturbing atmosphere in the class can ruin your lecture. During the lecture, I always used to scan the class and look eye-to-eye at students with indications of disruptive behaviour. I always maintained my calm in spite of a possible provocation. Perhaps that helped me to retain my authority and the result is that my class was disciplined in spite of its size. I rarely found any student disturbing the class. However, these kids react spontaneously. The whole class bursts into laughter when I tell them a little joke or they express their displeasure with a loud “No sir….” when I announce a sudden quiz. I sometimes wonder, what would someone walking in the corridor outside the class room think about 220 people suddenly laughing loudly or expressing their displeasure with a loud voice. Is the teacher being taken for a ride by the students? But it is fun because the students’ reactions are always childlike and spontaneous. Deviations from a normal behaviour within the class can often be handled with a little bit of tact rather than being a strict disciplinarian.

f)      Interaction with students

With a wireless microphone tugged to me, I moved around freely in the class and kept a close contact with the students. That was a bit uncomfortable to a couple of students who always used to doze off. I often insisted that those who doze should share their beautiful dreams with the rest of the class. I am sure they might not have dared to doze off again – but fortunately there were always a different bunch of students dozing off on the next day to be woken up into the real world with my hand gently shaking their shoulders.  I still remember those two girls in the second or third row, always murmuring to each other. I told them about my painful curiosity to know the secrets they were sharing with each other. Was it about an evening outing with their boyfriends? After this query in front of the class, the murmurs now turned into only occasional and inaudible whispers between them. This is a definite improvement in their behaviour without even admonishing them.

Occasionally, I exchanged jokes in the class or played a funny video to indulge in a little bit of fun. On one occasion, I stopped the lecture and ran out of the class to catch a student who left the class in the middle of the lecture through the back door. I brought him back to the class and he was sweating not knowing what I would do next. The class erupted into a big noisy laughter. Sometimes, dramatics help in relieving the tension. It helps in bridging the gap when students see the human side of you even if you are by nature a reserved person.

g)    Continuous assessment for enhanced student performance

Students are invariably worried about their grades. Considering that it is relative grading and there is a cutthroat competition, their worries are not misplaced, especially when there are stories floating around about courses in which F grades are for asking. During the semester, I conducted about 10 quizzes, three mid semester exams and one end semester exam. I think continuous assessment is better than judging the students based on only a couple of exams. This gives an opportunity to even a weaker student to do reasonably well in the course since all is not lost if the student performs badly in a couple of quizzes or a test. The frequent tests also force the students to revise what is taught and help them to assess themselves on the corrective steps needed for improving their performance. Invariably, frequent quizzes or tests create an environment in which students align their learning goals with their expected performance.  A continuous assessment throughout the semester ensured that no one failed in my course unless their attendance was absolutely bad in which case I could not do anything. Rules are rules!

h)    Time management

My lectures were scheduled on every Monday and Thursday from 8.00 AM to 9.30 AM. Coming to the class sharp at 8.00 AM was very painful to many.  No student ever saw me coming to the lecture hall at 8.00 AM. Like many of my young friends, it was painful for me too to come at 8.00 AM. But, I was always there in the class sharp at 7.45 AM and my lectures began when the clock struck 8.00 AM. In the first class itself, I advised my students to be in the class before I start the lecture. Initially, students did not realize what was to come if they came late. One day I asked about 40 students out of 220, who came to the class after 8.10 AM, to stand up and take the notes or leave the class. They chose to remain in the class – standing. I told them that my intention was not to insult them. The idea was to drive home the point that punctuality and time-discipline matter. It is not something you can take lightly. Next lecture onwards, I saw very few students coming late to the class. My classes always ended on time. Some teachers may think that they cannot stop their lecture on time because they are doing some earth shaking derivation towards the end of the lecture. It does not matter to them eating away into the next teacher’s time! I disagree. What message are we sending to the students? Isn’t starting the class on time as important as stopping the class on time?

i)      Effective use of Teaching Assistants

I used a biometric fingerprint device for taking attendance. Students, of course, did not like this device because it robbed them of the opportunity to give “proxy attendance”. My research students used to come to the class at 8.00 AM to take attendance using this device. I wish to underline how important it is to have good TAs when you are teaching a huge class. My M.Tech. students and research scholars helped me in evaluating and distributing marked answer scripts to the students and in maintaining marks list and attendance records. This is not a small job when there are 220 demanding students in the class. Two of my final year B.Tech. students did a marvelous job in conducting peer assisted study sessions to my students twice a week. Attendance was voluntary in these help sessions. However, on some occasions, the number in the help sessions, conducted after dinner from 8 pm – 9 pm, swelled to 90. May be my TAs were doing a better job than me! While, the TA’s help gave me time to focus on other components of my teaching, they too gained some insight about teaching big classes. Who knows this mentoring may help them in their smooth transition from being a research student to a teacher. Today there is a dearth of good teachers.

j)      Student feedback

I feel that when you are enthusiastic in the class, it spreads like a fire. But did my students feel the same way? Did they appreciate my lectures? Did I create a class room environment for an enjoyable and goal oriented learning? Is there something I need to improve upon? Feedback from students is an effective way of knowing this. I have often found that students give very objective feedback which can be very useful for fine tuning the teaching approach. A few representative comments from my students are given below which indicate their feelings about this course. When I had the first opportunity to read my students’ feedback on my lectures, I immediately called my wife and read out the comments over phone and got a pat for a job well done! After all, you always have a boss to whom you report.

Feedback from the students:

  • Really a good teacher… he knows his subject well…
  • The course was fun….our professor kept us on our toes with frequent quizzes and a minor 3 to help us improve our grades. It was a nice experience.
  • Lively teacher and made the course interesting.
  • Brilliant teacher….he relentlessly tries to generate interest in his discipline….a very selfless teacher…..gives his heart and soul to the course….deserves an award!
  • The classes were very well conducted – at just the perfect pace!
  • Really a great course done.
  • Sir is one of the best faculty that I have ever seen.
  • A very good professor who maintains a close interaction with students. All in all a nice professor.
  • Awesome experience.
  • Best teaching efforts I have ever encountered.
  • It was a pleasure to study from him……! thank u.
  • Loved the course.
  • The professor was very sincere and keen on explaining us the real concepts.
  • Sir had taught us with full enthu.
  • Very punctual prof,.
  • Good course.
  • He is just an awesome professor ….full of life and passion.
  • The discipline level of our respected sir was just awesome.

Of course, there were some critical comments too from my students. While the positive comments help me keep up my spirit, the critical comments drive me to improve further. I cherish both since there is no end to learning.

Is there something to be underlined from my experience and the strategies I have used from both a pedagogical and management perspective? It is for you to judge, just as my students did. I certainly look forward to teaching another big class! I am sure that will provide me an opportunity to improve my strategies further.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Education and Research. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Reflections on teaching a large class

  1. N Kannan says:

    Sir,

    A very nicely written and interesting article. Having attended your class last year, I can vouch for the fact that your words here are not just for public consumption but you actually put this much effort in making sure your students remain interested in the topic and also during the classes.

    One of the perennial problem of the education system is the often adversarial stand adopted by teacher and students towards each other. This article underlines the need for adopting a spirit of partnership by both sides.

    Having said that, I really worry about the poor teacher-student ratio in premier institutes of our country. This clearly reflects the crisis in higher education in our country. It is through the efforts of some self-motivated faculty that things are still afloat.

    N Kannan

  2. K. Sriram says:

    A very well written article.

    It is important that a lesson be presented in a manner that is interesting to all students. Only then is the objective of the course met. Otherwise it is very tempting to sleep in class. Very few teachers take pains to make the lesson/lecture interesting.

    It is also extremely important that students don’t feel intimidated by a professor. That is unfortunately the case in India in most of the educational institutions. This fear of teachers starts from school days. I think the opinion about a professor in a student’s mind should be that, if the student puts in the required effort in a subject, the professor is there to help the student progress in his career.

    Having studied at RMIT Melbourne I observed that I could address all my professors at RMIT by their first names and not as Sir. That in itself removes the intimidation factor. I hope we see such days in academics in India. All lectures were presented on power point and on a PA system.

    If only we had majority of teachers in India employing such methods as you are in your classes, there wouldn’t be the need for so many Indian students to pursue higher education overseas.

    Regards
    K. Sriram
    Senior RF Engineer (Planning and Optimization)
    Singtel Optus Pty Ltd
    Perth- Western Australia

  3. Pranab says:

    Dear Sir,

    I am one of your students who passed out in 2006. All I can say is – attending your class was fun.I have never seen a better teacher than you in my whole life. You are the best. I am working with IBM, and whenever I get time, I use to go through your web page.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Pranab

    • Thank you Pranab for remembering me. Can each one of us do our best in our lives? Can we make a difference in whatever we are doing? I would be the happiest when my students come back and tell me about their experiences on how they are trying to make a difference.

      With best wishes,
      MJK

  4. Mohammad Umar Rehman, M. Tech. EE, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh says:

    Respected Sir,
    Read feedback comments from your students.
    Given the fact you are the very best prof. of IITD
    it is a humble request to please start a video course on analog/digital electronics available through NPTEL

  5. Dear Prof. Jagadesh:

    I read your article with great interest. It is noted for its clarity, characteristic humour and sincerity. Many of the tips you have given will help improve my class performance. Nonetheless, I expected some tips on correcting assignments and test papers for a huge class. How do you manage it generally?!

    Thanks and regards,

    T. Ravichandran, IIT Kanpur

  6. Dear Prof. Ravichandran, I am elated to know that you liked some of the tips in my article. For the benefit of my readers, would it be possible to share some good practices that you implement in your class room teaching at IIT Kanpur?

    To answer your question, correcting test papers and quizzes is a time consuming process. I am aware that my students are curious to know about their performance in the exams sooner than later. Therefore, after the exam is over I sit with my team of carefully chosen Teaching Assistants. They read the question paper and solutions and understand them thoroughly. I then assign one or two questions to each TA for correction. During the corrections, we will also look at other possible solutions that might crop up. While the corrections are going on, which may take several hours, I sit with my TAs to clarify their doubts. I also randomly cross-check the answer scripts to make sure that there is uniformity in the corrections. Since we show the corrected answer scripts to the students to point out any errors in the correction, this process has worked very well.

    With best wishes,
    MJK

  7. Murali Ramanathan says:

    Respected Sir,
    I am much elated to see teachers like you serving the students. I wish I could also get into academics and follow your priinciples. I am very much interested in VLSI and making innovative ideas in the same. Let your service continue. Thank you Sir.
    Murali R,
    email: muraliramanathece@gmail.com

  8. dvrsarma says:

    So nice to go through your article sir,

    I attended your class at JNT Univeristy, Hyderabad in UGC Sponsored Refresher course on vlsi design. I had a repeated/cherished experience of what I had in your class in the year 2007 from your present article. Presently I am Assistant Professor in Anna University.

    Thanks a lot for your article
    V.R.Sarma Dhulipala

  9. Varada Potnis says:

    Dear Sir,
    I found your article extremely useful and well written. Though my teaching and academic career have just begun, I could relate to many of your experiences, especially a feel of satisfaction/dissatisfaction after the class and murmuring, noise in the class. I look forward to implement your tips in my teaching.

  10. Sabina says:

    Dear Sir,
    Im really very impressed after reading this article. In today’s professional life also, there are people like you who think in this selfless manner. I really appreciate your efforts and will try to adopt the same habits in life. Even till today, I always try to be selfless with the students in the class and behave as they are my own kids.
    Definitely, I will try to implement your suggestions and want some more suggestions in life to encourage myself to give my best to all the persons attached with me in life.

    Thanx a lot Sir,
    SABINA SINGH

  11. C.THIRUMURUGAN says:

    Dear sir,
    I am Thirumurugan, a PhD scholar from IIT Mandi. I am really impressed by the way of writing of this useful article. I like this quote “smooth transition from being a research student to a teacher” from the sub topic Effective use of TAs.

  12. shruti murgai says:

    Sir attending your guest lecture at IWPSD was really helpful..n fun. You are really a great teacher and a speaker too.It was my pleasure meeting you and i am really very thankful for guidance. your blog is remarkable.I wish i could be your student in future.I will surely work hard for it..!!!!

  13. Dear Professor, I happened to read about you and found this article highly interesting. I handle large classes but not as large as you are handling. Your inputs regarding how to engage the students and create an attitude about overall objective of the course will be adopted by me.
    Regards
    Dr.K.Prabhakar

  14. Changavalli Siva Rama Murthy says:

    I enjoyed reading your reflections on the joy of teaching students in a large class. One of the reasons why you happen to be a good teacher, I guess, is the fact that you are son of a teacher. As a fellow teacher in non-science area of knowledge, I am pleasantly surprised to find so many commonalities between the techniques you mentioned and those I adopt. While totally endorsing the importance of passion and professionalism along with punctuality, I must admit my failing to make use of audiovisual tools. Of course, these days students do not readily the efforts of a tough teacher or research supervisor. In the long run, some of them become our ambassadors. On the whole, the experience of watching students’ faces and eyes swinging continually along with the teacher while absorbing what is being conveyed is priceless for any teacher anywhere.

  15. Dr. Ramaiah Itumalla says:

    Respected Sir,

    Congratulations for being appointed as the new V.C of the JNU, New Delhi.

    You are an inspiration for young people like me not only from the NALGONDA Dist and also from the entire nation.

    Myself and the people form NALGONDA are proud of you Sir. I love the nice words you have told about your mother in the interview.

    All the best and I pray the GOD to give you the health and strength to perform your duties.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Dr. Ramaiah Ittamalla
    PGDBM, MA, MPhil, MBA (HC&HM), PhD
    UGC-Dr. Radhakrishnan Post Doctoral Fellow
    School of Management Studies
    University of Hyderabad
    Hyderabad, Telangana – 500046
    Mobile: 9985298552

  16. Vikram M. Gadre, IIT Bombay says:

    Dear Prof Jagadeesh Kumar, Your article on teaching large classes is very well written and informative. Prof Mahesh Patil of our Dept forwarded the link to all of us in the department. I found many useful thoughts to emulate and reflect upon and also found some concerns and observations corroborated. I appreciate the fact that you feel dedicated teaching is important in the IITs and take this opportunity to congratulate you heartily on becoming the Vice Chancellor of JNU.
    Gadre

  17. Vosu Mittal says:

    Feeling Excited to get you as our Vice-Chancellor, hope JNU will excel in comming years.

  18. sir i’m a big fan of you recently we got an interaction with Aldas Janaiah sir,he inspired us a lot with his speech about your success in your life !

  19. Shailja Singh says:

    Excited to be part of JNU under your leadership…..

  20. Pushpendra Kumar says:

    Dear Sir
    The article on teaching large classes is very informative, exciting and helpful in handling the classes. I have gone through this just now and found very useful.

    With best regards
    Pushpendra

  21. Kausik says:

    Dear Sir
    It is always give pleasure to become hero of students… A good class and sense of humor of a teacher mentioned by you positively give fruitful result. Being a student, always tried to follow a teacher who contains value, discipline, fun loving good human being and I believe knowledge come later.
    Reading your blog I am feeling very confident to take best classes and also learn some methods or tricks to make class teaching better and live by grabbing maximum attention of students for large classes.
    Best wishes

  22. VISHAL says:

    sir i am really proud of you, being from telangana, reaching huge heights, i really appreciate. this is vishal from karimnagar

  23. Uday Nitin Patil says:

    Hon. Sir, I’m a second year student of B.Sc from a tribal district Dhule in Maharashtra. I firstly heard your name when you were appointed as the Vice Chancellor of JNU, Delhi. Sir I was so impressed and motivated by the biodata published on your website that I cannot express in words. The research you carried in Nano electronics and the way you teach and work was something like a motivation in itself. Later I watched your Interview and became familiar with your simplicity. I know sir praising you is like to light up a lamp in front of the sun but just wanted to say that your success, teachings and vision even inspires students like us who belong to small towns that too in tribal area. In future if I would get a chance to learn in JNU under your leadership or even just get to listen your lecture, it would be great pleasure for me……

  24. JAGAMOHAN SAHOO says:

    Respected Sir,
    I am Jagamohan Sahoo, a research scholar from NIT Durgapur. What a writing sir about teaching professionalism!!!! I am really really thankful to god for getting this blog of yours to read and understand. “Being a research scholar to a good Teacher”; yes sir, I truly admit,teachers like you will always be remembered, kept in everyone’s deep point in the heart. Although I am an unfortunate for not being a student of you directly, but somehow almighty has given a chance to meet you in the interview panel at IIT Delhi for PhD admission.You are always a role model for young scholars like us.

    Thanking you again for this post sir.

    Regards,
    Jagamohan

I value your feedback. Please feel free to comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s