How to Survive, and thrive, in Large Classes

How to Survive, and thrive, in Large Classes

Gosha Zywno
2002 3M Teaching Fellow

y classes this year are the largest ever, including close to 200 engineering students in a single lecture class; yet with no “difficult student” in sight and a classroom full of a productive buzz when students work on an activity, I must be doing something right.

I have read somewhere that students make up their minds about the teacher and the subject within the first ten minutes of the first class, and that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change those first impressions. However intimidating that is, my experience confirms that if I want to get the message across to my new class that I care about them, want them to succeed, and that this course will be different, I need to model every new element right there in the first class. Thus I approach the logistics of the first day with great care. I come in about twenty minutes early to set everything up, to chat with the students as they stream into the auditorium, and to ask their names. When I start the class, rather than proceeding with an overview of a course outline, management and content, I introduce a concept of active learning that I want the students to engage in, and then model it immediately.

Since I teach an introductory course in systems control, I get a group of volunteers to enact a skit illustrating basic principles of feedback. I bring props: a blindfold, a big target and a bunch of big labels that we pin on the volunteers describing their roles-Reference, Feedback, Disturbance, Error, System Response, and Safety Limit Switch. We get the System Response volunteer blindfolded, rotated a few times and sent on his/her way across the stage in quest of the target. System Response is accompanied by Safety Limit Switch who models shutting down the system if its operating range is exceeded (simply making sure that the blindfolded person does not fall off the stage). Disturbance acts as an unexpected signal that may affect the system performance, by sneaking up on the hapless System Response and nudging him/her in the wrong direction. Much hilarity usually ensues with System Response missing the target by a mile. We then repeat the whole exercise with Feedback providing continuous verbal clues to the System Response to get him/her on track and to avoid “sneak attacks” from Disturbance. This activity drives home two useful points-it provides an introduction to the whole concept of feedback systems design that can be easily understood without any preparation, and it shows the students that when I talk about getting them actively involved, I really mean it.

I follow up with a video clip of a real-life control system to show that we will be connecting theory to real-life applications, and then I introduce new software tools and the course website. I make a point of using visualization tools that I either developed for the course or made available online. I talk about learning styles and different in-class, online and take-home activities I plan for them. I summarize the first class with my trademark line, “I am not here to teach you-I am here to help you learn,” which drives home the point that with partnership comes the responsibility of taking ownership of one’s learning.

Richard Felder, an engineering professor and well-known educator, recommends designating Class Ambassadors and meeting with them regularly as one of the most helpful strategies for a large class, and I can attest to its effectiveness. In the first week I visit every one of the class’s several lab sections. Class Ambassadors are elected by their peers right there and then, one to represent each lab section. I get the measure of the class “pulse” through the Ambassadors, as some students may feel intimidated to express their concerns to a teaching assistant or a professor, but all speak freely to their peers. We meet every three weeks or so to discuss, often over pizza, whatever issues need to be addressed. Our meetings combined with short Start-Stop-Continue surveys provide me with formative feedback and allow me to respond to concerns before they become a headache, and to keep the class morale high. The Ambassadors in turn get a practical lesson in how to resolve problems, learn accountability to their constituency and generally get to hone their leadership skills. They also help out with class activities, where logistics of getting materials out to so many people can eat up valuable time.

Since my students need to complete several lab experiments and engineering design projects in teams, each team of four selects its Team Leader. Team Leaders are responsible for getting the correct assignments to their teammates and for making sure that their team is on task and on time. I also ask them for periodic status reports.

Having Class Ambassadors as my primary conduit to the class, with Team Leaders as a secondary tier, keeps me connected to my students without being overwhelmed. It also leaves me more time for individual counselling and for asynchronous communications allowing me to reach more students.



I make a pledge to my students in the first class that I want to get to know them as individuals, and that includes quickly learning their names, despite the class size. I ask the students to send me a short “Introduce Yourself ” essay, and more than 6o% do that. Some write about plans to go to a law school or to get an MBA, or to work for NASA. Others write about their volunteering, sports and music, painting, writing poetry or about their children. Some write about their journey to Canada from war-torn places, settling in with no support networks that we often take for granted. Others write about a struggle with disability, chronic illness, about working night shifts, supporting their families. Reading these stories is a very rewarding experience as I learn how diverse my class is, and how multidimensional these wonderful young people are, with so many interests outside narrowly defined academic disciplines, and with big dreams.

I follow this by taking a digital snapshot of each team during the lab visit, and then I create cue cards with pictures, names and some helpful facto ids that I learned from the essays. Believe it or not, this works! And students, resigned to anonymity in most of their classes, are floored when I address them by their name. The names exercise is very important to me on an emotional level, because I know from personal experience how unpleasant it is to be invisible, and because I believe that students deserve to have us recognize them as human beings, and not as cogs in some sterile education-processing machine.

Many of the students who take that large class sign up the following year for a professional elective that I teach. By graduation day, I will have known them and worked with them for two years, and I feel a bit like an anxious mommy bird watching her chicks take off for the first time. They go on to live their lives, and I am greeting another cohort of young faces. But some stay in touch for years, and I get to enjoy their successes vicariously, knowing in my heart that I indeed made a difference.