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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.