On teaching large freshman classes

Arlenna has a post on the physical and mental challenges that teaching poses to instructors.
I can easily relate to what she writes. My own teaching schedule is fairly demanding this term, including both a graduate course as well as a large introductory physics class for life science majors (200 registered students). One of the things that frustrate many a college professor is the lack of appreciation for the effort required to teach a large freshmen course, not only on the part of those who themselves have never taught, but also of university administrators and even of faculty colleagues (typically those who are most skillful at avoiding the most onerous teaching duties).

“What’s the big deal ? The material is simple, just go, shut your brain off, teach for an hour and you are done”. That is what I have heard many a time, including, as I stated above, from some colleagues who would know better, if they themselves had ever been involved in freshmen teaching. There are a number of reasons why things are not nearly as straightforward as the above, superficial remarks would suggest.

First of all, the fact that the “material is simple” does not mean that teaching it is simple. In fact, very often it proves quite a challenge to present in a clear and compelling way topics which might seem elementary but are not, especially those constituting the intellectual foundation of a field, i.e., whose comprehension is crucial to mastering more advanced subjects later on. Especially in physics, where everything is related, learning cannot occur by looking at individual subjects as if they were disconnected from the rest (and forgetting them after the midterm exam). A student who does not possess a solid understanding of concepts such as kinematics, Newton’s law of action and reaction, potential energy, etc., is inexorably ill-equipped to tackle later on electricity and magnetism, waves, atomic physics and so on.
I find myself spending way more time preparing my lectures for freshmen physics, than graduate quantum mechanics. The vastly different levels of preparedness of the students in the audience, make it particularly difficult a task to strike a proper balance between rigor and precision of the presentation, and accessibility of the material. Much easier is to teach a graduate course, as students are not only more experienced and familiar with the basic terminology, but also tend to take a much more active role in the learning process.

But classroom teaching, which tends to be fairly tiring per se (when I return from a lecture I typically need at least half an hour just to reorder my thoughts) is just one part of the overall endeavor, and not even the main one.
I am not referring to the grading of homework, which in a class like this one is mostly done by teaching assistants [0]. A professor in charge of a course is expected to tutor students outside lecture hours. For courses with low enrollment, additional help with course material can be offered during office hours, typically 2-3 a week, scheduled at regular times. But when enrollment exceeds fifty or so, office hours are merely symbolic, as most students will not be able to come to the office at those times, due to conflicts with other classes, work and/or other obligations. Obviously, an instructor must make a bona fide effort to accommodate the needs of the students; in practice, this means that one will be essentially “on call” during the entire term, willing to schedule meetings with students, often on a short (e.g., two hours) notice, anytime between 9 am and 7 pm Monday through Friday, and occasionally during the weekend. To that one must add the e-mails from students seeking help at random times (roughly 5-10 a day), to which a professor must respond with reasonable timeliness.

Let us get one thing straight: all of the above is not only perfectly doable, it is also an integral and most rewarding part of the profession, and something that each college teacher should be willing and eager to do, or (s)he should really look for another job. However, there is no question that it takes a significant toll on one’s research program. This term, most of the research work in my group will be carried out by my postdoc and graduate student, to whom I can devote a couple hours a week at the most. Thus, if this term teaching assignment were to become the norm for me, I think it would be a matter of a couple years for my research program to be reduced to a mere part-time activity. It is largely not a matter of how many, but which courses one is requested to teach. I have been teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels for over a decade, and can comfortably state that I would have much more time at my disposal this term if I were to teach, e.g., two graduate courses.
This is, I believe, the main reason underlying the tendency of many physics departments at research universities to assign large freshmen courses to part-time, adjunct instructors, i.e., not to cut too significantly into the research time of its faculty, especially junior ones, of whom much is expected in terms of scientific progress, publications, funding success etc. It is an open secret that most college faculty, especially at research universities, are not keen on teaching freshmen classes, precisely because they tend to be time-consuming and mentally and physically draining.

The heavy use of adjuncts is a practice to which many academics and students object, for a number of valid reasons. I think that regular, full-time faculty ought to shoulder the greatest part of the effort of teaching large freshmen courses. Clearly, however, it is imperative that this duty be equitably distributed among research-active faculty. Conversely, faculty whose research program is dwindling, or has dried out, should be asked to give a more substantial contribution to the teaching of the most time-consuming classes.

Notes
[0] I am going to have to grade my midterm and final exams, and am dreading doing that, but it is admittedly something that the instructor has to do once a term and no more.

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10 Responses to “On teaching large freshman classes”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    From my experience as a TA , here are few thoughts:

    1) Do you really have to be available ALL the time? What if you announce your office hours to be 3-5pm everyday? It is very unlikely for a student to be busy for those two hours all the week. And even if this happens, you may make exceptions for those with exceptional timetable. Ten hours a week in office hours is more than what you are asked for by the department. It is also enough to answer serious questions from a 200 student class.

    Same goes for emails. Again, do you have to reply within few minutes? Most of the emails are not urgent and replays can be pushed back to a certain time of the day.

    2) About tests, what’s wrong with multiple-choices ones? I am aware of how people get conservative when it comes to this kind of tests, however I don’t see anybody complaining about the format of the advanced GRE test! This test weight a lot in graduate application (that is; career future) as you definitely know. Students might be asked to attach a sheet of their calculations, so when in doubt of cheating, you may check the calculations leading to the chosen answer. The MCT can be carefully designed to represent a balance between giving reasonable measures of the student skills and giving the professor a little bit of slack while grading.

    3) Now, the most important of all, why does every physics professor have to provide his own version of the explanation of Newton laws? Why are departments reluctant to webcast one set of video lectures, ask students to watch them online and then, let the actual lecture time for discussions and correcting misconceptions? Just imagine a student watching a well-prepared lecture on the subject, reading the relevant parts of the textbook, then spending an hour of so in class discussions with you the professor. This way teaching would be much more efficient.

    Before someone says “students should have the opportunity to ask questions during the lecture”, just remember the number of questions you receive every lecture. They are really few; most students go with the flow, and save questions until after they have read the textbook.

    I understand that each lecturer should provide his own signature of the subject. Nonetheless, I do not see this as an important contribution when it comes to teaching freshmen physics. There is no much room for creativity in those courses; almost every option has already been extensively exploited by other lectures/textbooks.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Do you really have to be available ALL the time? What if you announce your office hours to be 3-5pm everyday?

      Can’t. I have the other class to teach. And, believe it or not, students who live far from campus and commute will not be able to come in the afternoon…

      Same goes for emails. Again, do you have to reply within few minutes?

      Maybe I don’t, my impression is that it works to my advantage if I try to keep the discussion over e-mail, it saves time.

      About tests, what’s wrong with multiple-choices ones?

      To me, nothing, but like I said, I am not spending much time grading — I have TAs for that. Otherwise I like MCTs for a number of reasons. Students hate them though, and will blast you (the instructor) on their evaluations if you use them.

      Now, the most important of all, why does every physics professor have to provide his own version of the explanation of Newton laws? Why are departments reluctant to webcast one set of video lectures, ask students to watch them online and then, let the actual lecture time for discussions and correcting misconceptions?

      Here I totally disagree. I think you’ll change your mind the moment you are given one of these sections to teach yourself.
      I think it’s already ridiculous to have sections with 200 students; we should offer many more of them with 50 students each, at the most. I get plenty of questions during lecture, and webcasting would never work the same.
      I am pretty sure that if we were to do it as you suggest, 90% of students would show up not having even looked at the thing, telling you “I am not clear on the entire approach to the subject taken by the video, can you please go through everything from the beginning ?”. Why do I say that ? Because it’s already hopeless to try and get most of them to read the textbook.

      And look, if we really believe that webcasting is the same as classroom teaching, if we really feel that that is where teaching is headed, then I am afraid there is not much room left for you nor me. Next thing you know, the entire thing goes online, students are told to purchase a DVD and given a toll-free number to call when they need help, to speak to a tutor based somewhere in India…

      Nonetheless, I do not see this as an important contribution when it comes to teaching freshmen physics. There is no much room for creativity in those courses; almost every option has already been extensively exploited by other lectures/textbooks.

      I completely disagree with this contention too. Quite the opposite, it is precisely in these courses that the difference between an effective teacher and one who simply repeats stuff off the book is clear. I spend hours thinking of how best to present a certain subject, which examples will work and which may confuse students, whether I can make connections with more advanced research subjects (albeit in passing). Whether I succeed or not, is not for me to say, but I find that I need all the time that I spend on lecture preparation, and more.
      If you ask me, the one place where the instructor makes little difference is in graduate courses — graduate students could learn the stuff on their own, and would be probably better off doing it that way.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with Okham on this one. I am a grad student and for a weird reason this semester I am teaching what it is suppose to be a large class (designed for 100 students) but ended up being a medium-sized class (only 40 registered for the section).

    I used to think it was easy to teach undergraduate, 101 physics. I thought since I was in grad school and understood the material I can just go and talk about it with no problem. I was 100% wrong.

    1) Students are not very interested, so most likely the only time they will have to learn is during the lecture, which puts a lot of pressure on designing the course. Sure, you could say, well, if they don’t care why should I? But the bottom line is that if you are teaching a class you should do your best to teach them, even if they don’t want. I have noticed many of them don’t like physics because they haven’t had a motivated, good teacher. We could possibly make a difference.

    2) I have a one-hour class MWF. I don’t know about other courses, but the syllabus for this course (designed by the department so there’s nothing I can do, specially since I am not a professor) is extremely demanding covering something like 20 or so chapters. This puts an enormous time limitation on what you can teach, you have to pick the right examples and/or analogies to try to give them the best lecture you can possibly give in 50 minutes.

    3) The difference in background from one student to the other makes it even worse. My class is the second semester course and many of the students cannot remember what a cosine, sine or tangent are. It is a calculus-based course and many of them cannot integrate a constant. Once again, you could simply not care but the more this not caring situation happens the worst it will become at the end.

    In my opinion, we as educators MUST do our best to teach the most number of students, and that takes time. If you don’t like it, please do not teach, you would be doing a greater disservice.

    R

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Students cannot remember what a cosine, sine or tangent are

      Trig ? Are you kidding me ? Invariably, when I do some algebra on the board and go from A/B = C to A = BC, or from AC=BC to A=B, or even from A-B=C to A=B+C someone asks “how did you get that ?”. Twelve years ago, when I started teaching, I used to say “If you need to ask this question you do not belong in this class”. Now I know better.
      I can easily spot, however, the 20-30% of students in the classroom who do have the background, who can do algebra, who wish to learn some physics, getting bored out of their minds listening to me teach remedial algebra… those students are getting seriously short-changed.

      • Anonymous Says:

        getting bored out of their minds listening to me teach remedial algebra.

        I agree, but what can you do? The problem comes from way before they enter college and I don’t think it’s fair to say, well sorry, it’s not my fault your high-school (or elementary?) teacher sucked.

        Or why not have them take remedial algebra before taking physics 1? I had to take pre-college tests (after taking the admission test) for math, physics, computer science, english and my-country’s-language subjects and pass, otherwise you have to take the remedial courses for the ones you didn’t.

        At the university where I did my undergrad (not in the US or Canada), they had honors courses for every general math, physics and chemistry course, but they didn’t have an honors program. Basically, those classes were open to whoever wanted to be challenged, so if you wanted to really learn you would take the honors one, if you wanted to learn less, but have an easier time you would take the normal one. The good thing about this system is that is pure personal choice.

        Both courses covered the same topics, but the honors one had more challenging HW and tests problems. Interestingly, it wasn’t only physics majors that took these honors courses. If I remember correctly, it was typically about 30-40% physics, the rest engineering and other science students.

        I should mention that where I come from the pre-med modality doesn’t exist, you go straight out of high-school to medical school if that’s what you want. Plus, non-science or engineering majors only had to take math, no physics or chemistry.

        -R

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        I don’t think it’s fair to say, well sorry, it’s not my fault

        Sure, it’s not fair. Nor is it fair to say “sorry, I do not know algebra, even though it is an explicit prerequisite — deal with it and teach down to my level”. We all have to accept a degree of compromise, including those who are in the wrong (whether it is their fault or not, seems scarcely relevant), not just the instructor and/or the students who do meet the prerequisites.

        why not have them take remedial algebra before taking physics 1

        Sure. Try telling them. They will tell you that they need this course and do not have time to take remedial classes. And since they cannot be made compulsory, none of them will take them.

        As for honor courses — they exist in America too. But students need to maintain a certain minimum Grade Point Average in order to stay enrolled in the Honors program. The majority of students do not qualify.

      • Anonymous Says:

        Why can’t they be made compulsory?

        -R

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        You cannot require students to take remedial classes if, on paper, they fulfill the prerequisites, which most of them do. The fact that they did not really learn what they were supposed to learn… well, is immaterial as far as university administration is concerned. You can recommend them to take remedial classes, but it’s like adding additional units to their degree, and most of them won’t. And because you cannot fail half of the students in a class, your only option is that of lowering the level of the course.

      • Anonymous Says:

        No, you have to take the remedial courses your first semester in college. And those courses should serve as bridge for whatever they didn’t learn in high school and what they will use in college.

        I don’t buy that idea that you cannot fail half of the class. It’s done where I come from, and everybody sticks to the academic plan if they want to actually get the degree. If it takes longer, well, that’s just what was needed.

        -R

      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        I don’t buy that idea that you cannot fail half of the class

        I have mixed feelings about it. It was quite common in Italy too, in the early 80s when I was in college… 50 of us would sit for a written calculus exam and only 2 of … them would be admitted to the orals… and of these two, maybe one would pass with the minimum… I thought it was ridiculous, though, and I did see many who could and should have continued, give up their studies altogether after such an experience. My friends tell me that it is not nearly as bad now, and that the bar has been lowered significantly.

        At SDSU, where I was before, failure rates of 50-60% were not at all uncommon, especially in introductory physics courses for engineers. That meant that most people would have to take the course multiple times, but I think in the end most would pass.

        Where I am now, grading is rigidly done on a curve, and your grades will be changed if you don’t give that many As, Bs and so on. I disagree with this notion as well.
        But the idea that you should keep the course at a level that is inconsistent with the preparedness of 80% of the students does seem a bit… drastic, in a way. But it’s a difficult problem, I think.

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