Friday, April 1, 2011

How Should I Teach a "Big" Class?

This semester was a teaching milestone for me- first time using PowerPoint for a whole class, first time having >110 students (enrollment was 293!), first time teaching basic genetics, first time trying to involve active learning, and more. I team-taught the new Bio102L introduction to genetics & evolution course with another professor, with my lectures focusing primarily on genetics and molecular evolution but a few lectures in other topics (evidence for evolution, speciation, etc.).

With only two lectures left, and feedback from mid-semester evaluations, I have a lot of thoughts on the experience, and I'd love feedback from all of you on your experiences either as a student or as a teacher. I'll split my nine comments into three areas: what I thought went well, what surprised me (in some cases requiring changes), and things where the jury's out.

WHAT SEEMED TO WORK OVERALL (in my opinion- the students can speak to it better!):

1) Low-stress assignments, especially daily pre-lecture quizzes they can retake based on their assigned reading. Many students have told me they appreciate having these, as they help them understand better what it is from the assigned reading I want them to walk away understanding. Even if they don't actually read the material, they're at least exposed to a few specific ideas (and questions/ answers) before class begins. A minority commented they felt it was an unnecessary "hoop", but far more commented favorably than negatively.

2) Technology. The students and I seem to both appreciate having a) videotaped lectures available online, b) PowerPoints available online, and c) assessments (quizzes & problem sets) easy to take at their own schedule on Blackboard (and automatically graded for us). Use of technology has also alleviated some of the burden from me, in that if a student asks me a question that was covered in class, I can give a shorter answer and also refer them to, "See slides 5-8 of my February 2 PowerPoints." Finally, I've really enjoyed using my iPad for lectures- see my other blog post about that.

3) In-class feedback system (via PollEverywhere). When you ask a class "How many people think A is the answer?" and get 20 hands up, and then ask about "B" and get 1 hand, does that mean that 95% of the class understands? What about the 200 people who never raised their hands? PollEverywhere has been great for me both to have the students engage in the material besides just listening to me drone on and to get an idea of REALLY what fraction of students understand (especially when I added an option that says "I don't know" to every poll). Because these polls are done anonymously, response rates are closer to ~60-70% of attendees rather than the usual ~10%. The polls take little time, and students discussing possible answers with their neighbors helps them hear a different way of explaining the material.

4) Spending time talking with students one-on-one. This was a huge personal benefit for me- I arrived to class 30 minutes early every day, chatting with whoever was there, and tried to walk through all the lab sections each week to interact a bit more one-on-one. I got a ton of very valuable feedback on what was clear vs. unclear, what things the students liked vs. didn't like, etc. Additionally, part of what I like about teaching is getting to know these interesting students- a few actually sought me out, but by walking around and chatting directly, I got to know more of them, and I really enjoyed that. I also did various activities with many that were very enjoyable, like flunches and other outings. They're a really fun group of people!


5) The premed stereotype was dramatically exaggerated. ~80% of the class are premeds. I heard "horror stories" from professors who taught other introductory, required classes for premeds about students attacking each question on a test trying to get more points, constant accusations of unfairness, general rudeness, etc. Frankly, I didn't see that at all. There were times when students pointed out alternate interpretations of questions, but it was always done politely, and frankly, many of the times they were correct. When I disagreed, I got a very polite, "I see your point- thanks anyway." Other students expressed concerns to me about their grades, but again, very respectfully and with an eye to what they can do to improve performance in future tests rather than special favors. On my test, the grades ranged from 50-100, so it wasn't that everyone got an A either. My point here is not that these horror stories didn't happen in the other classes, but that there's been too much overgeneralization to "premeds" as a whole.

6) If I think I "COULD" split something into multiple slides to explain better/ more thoroughly, DO IT! There are many concepts I thought would be straightforward, yet at the last second, I extended their coverage into more slides just to be sure. Almost invariably, even with expanded coverage, I still should have used more slides and more explanation. I think my lecture introducing recombination between Drosophila mutations went over poorly, and I had to devote much time in reviews and in one-on-one question/ answers to make up for my poor presentation initially. Since then, anytime I hesitate for even a second on whether to expand a discussion, I err on the side of expanding. It's also important to do it in slides and not just verbally, as the students study from their downloaded slides (and may have missed something I just said verbally).

7) Have multiple people read over all problem sets/ tests. This wasn't a huge issue for my material, but there were questions that I worded confusingly (or for which there were multiple interpretations) where I had to go back and give credit for alternative answers. When this happens, it's stressful for the students and more work for me, so it's really important to have diverse people (including non-native English speakers) read over the problem and test questions. I didn't do enough of that initially.


8) Open-book & open-notebook quizzes/ problem sets/ tests. We adopted this approach to remove the focus from "Do I have to know X fact?" to real understanding, interpretation, and implementation by the students. I liked this, and some students liked this. I received two kinds of concerns, though. One was stress-level: some students really worried that having "open book" tests meant the tests would be extraordinarily difficult. The other was that they worried they may not retain the material as well when needed in the distant future (e.g., for the MCAT).

9) Class timing/ bonus slides. It was extremely difficult for me to prepare material, especially involving some active learning, and know it would take exactly 1 hour 15 minutes. Part-way through the semester, I adopted a new strategy of "bonus slides." Basically, I'd aim for a 55 minute lecture. If we finished it early, I had some slides of more practice problems or discussion questions. If we finished those too, I had some more slides about "bonus material" that's related to what we covered but for which the students were not responsible- basically showing off-shoots that are of "general interest." It seemed to me that these last ones were often enjoyed by the students the most- perhaps because they didn't feel pressured to write things down and really just listened for entertainment. But I didn't get any formal feedback on that overall strategy.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback from personal experiences!


  1. my sister is teaching a 200+ lecture at WPI - she is not using any direct lecture - case studies/clicker cases the entire guys should talk!

  2. Professor Noor,

    I am a student in your 102L class, and I've never seen a professor of a big lecture class be so engaged in the learning of individual students. When you walk around and ask "how was your weekend?", "How am I doing at teaching these concepts?", and "Where should we go from here?", it really shows your care for your students and for fueling our capacity to learn. A lot of times, I'm so blindsided that a professor of a large lecture would do this that I am unprepared to give you feedback when you ask! I hope this post suffices. Keep up this personalized approach to teaching--and keep doing it in large lectures. Perhaps other professors, in seeing the way you teach, will take note and a revolution in the way large lectures are taught may result.

    Singing your praises,

    that girl in the back who now realizes her voice in a large lecture matters.

  3. I agree with Jessica. I thought you did a splendid job. Now that I think about it, the prelecture quizzes really helped me understand the material.

    I think what I like most about your teaching style is your exuberance. You really seemed to be enjoying the class.

  4. Professor Noor,

    You are truly an amazing lecturer. You explain things clearly and seem to really care about your students. The most important thing for a professor for me is seeing that he is passionate about his subject, and you seem to really love it. Thank you for making a pre-med class very enjoyable. It is a hard feat.

  5. Aw, y'all are all so kind- thanks so much! What do folks think about especially question 8?

  6. Thank you for this description of what worked well for teaching - and I look forward to even more student comments. I've described and linked to your post in the Duke's Center for Instructional Technology blog.

  7. Professor Noor,

    Your enthusiasm, combined with your devotion to your students, is a rare combination, particularly for a large class. I very much appreciate and value the individual attention you pay to students, as well as your efforts to include technology in a meaningful way to your class.


  8. I'm inspired by this blog post and hope that other faculty share strategies that work for them in both large lecture classes and small discussion sections. As a new faculty member, I find these ideas exciting!

  9. I was not a student in your class, but my opinion on question 8 and open book tests/quizzes is so: If the test is purely fact based and answers can be found easily then I don't think they are a good idea. However, it sounds like you have more of a conceptural approach. In that case, most of the time having a book isn't going to "teach" you anything you didn't already study. So the tests shouldn't be harder/easier for students. If anything, it should reduce the stress level given that they can refer to equations/principals/theories. Besides, they can still opt not to use them if they wish.