Four hundred and twelve

On September 9, 2010, I started teaching my largest physics class ever (412 enrolled). Until now, the largest I had taught was 200, and I thought that that was still “manageable”, in a way. The room was big, but there were still white boards, I could be heard without using a microphone; I graded myself midterm and final exam (problem-based), and even though it was time-consuming, it was still doable. Doubling the size, however, seems to change the ballgame, somewhat. These are my impressions thus far:

University lecture ? Public lecture ? Town hall meeting ?
It struck me the first time I walked into that room, recently built on campus precisely to host this oceanic type audience. Four hundred is a lot of students listening to one person at one time. I simply have to use a microphone, there is no way I could do it otherwise. I would have to scream out of my lungs for one hour and fifteen minutes, and I am sure that those sitting in the back of the room would still not hear me.
Using the microphone is no problem for me, setting it up is easy, and by the time I show up, the instructor teaching in that room before me has done it for me already, anyway — same goes for the projector.
The real problem is when students ask questions — we all recognize that as an integral part of the lecture, and I do not think that this large size class facilitates that at all. Aside from asking a question before such a large crowd being intimidating, students do not have a microphone, and it is basically impossible for them to be heard, not just by me (I can always walk up to them even though it is annoying to have to ask them to repeat the question every time), but by most of their fellow students. So, I have to repeat the question each time, and it is my sense that the entire process is cumbersome.
I suppose I could have a teaching assistant (TA) walk around with a microphone but, aside from not having been assigned a TA for that purpose, something about that seems terribly odd… is this a university lecture or some kind of Sunday morning TV show ? Sometimes I feel like, oh, I don’t know, a TV evangelist, or someone doing some infomercial…

Where is the white board ?
A white board, Sir ? And, how do you expect people sitting up there to see it ?“, told me the support technician who showed me how to operate the electronic equipment in the room on my first day, when I asked him where the button was to make the white board appear… Yeah… I guess he is right. What was I thinking…
I do not use PowerPoint for introductory physics, I still believe that it is pedagogically more effective if students actually see me express the concept in writing before their eyes. There are two overhead projectors; I can write on a regular sheet of paper and have it all projected on the large screen. You would think that it is the same thing but it is not.
There is a lot to be said for having a large white (or black) board, on which to describe in detail how to solve a problem, or illustrate a tricky new concept, or derivation. When I taught this course two years ago I had one of those sets of white boards that can slide up and over each other. Stuff that I wrote could remain visible to students for tens of minutes, before I had to erase. A paper sheet is too small, I quickly run out of space and have to move to a new sheet. I have two projectors, and can have the content of two sheets projected at the same time, but… it is not the same thing.

Homework assignment
I am using for the first time computerized homework assignments. I do not really have a choice, if I want student to work on practice problems on their own this is the only way to do it, with a class this size [0]. I am really curious to see how this turns out. About a decade ago, when I was at SDSU, colleagues of mine experimented with whatever was available back then and the results were mixed. In particular, the interface seemed clumsy, error-prone, not really conducive to learning and not really allowing an instructor to assign wide enough a range of problems.
I have to say, I am impressed with the progress that has been made in this field since then. I can assign essentially the same problems that I would assign if I had to collect papers every week. The system allows students to enter not only numerical answers, but also answers that must be given as an algebraic expression. The very fact that so far only a handful of students have e-mailed me with issues regarding the use of the system speaks volumes, in terms of its ease to use and reliability. True, students do not have to write a solution, and I suppose many could see this as a drawback — personally I do not, for the reasons that I expounded here. In any case, the advantage is that I can assign more problems every week.
We shall see how this works out in the end, but I am reasonably optimistic. I guess the first term exam in October will provide a better assessment.

I am hovering around 5-10 e-mails from students every day, since class started. Most of them are questions about things that I have said in class (some repeated a few times already), or are written on the course web page, and therefore answering any given one of them takes little time. Very few messages had to with actual course material, and thus far very few students have been coming to see me in my office, during or outside office hours. It must be because my lectures are so beautifully clear and comprehensive… right ?

Stay tuned.


[0] I only have one TA “for grading” but, seriously, can I really ask a graduate student to grade four hundred and twelve papers every week ? He is just helping me with tutoring.

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18 Responses to “Four hundred and twelve”

  1. GMP Says:

    my largest physics class ever (412 enrolled)

    Oh my goodness!!! Could it not have been split into multiple sessions? This seems inhumane to both the instructor and the students. I wll definitely stay tuned; I am quite interested in how the course develops and how this monstrous class size and the necessary adjustments that come with it impact the student learning.

    • Massimo Says:

      Could it not have been split into multiple sessions?

      What do you mean ? Of course it could, it was until last year. But why would you do that ? Come on, think of the inefficiency, the waste of resources… Why would you want to pay all those useless instructors, when you can just serve four hundred customers in one shot…. I can only imagine to what good use administrators will put the money saved….

      • GMP Says:

        🙂 A delicious bit of snark!

      • transientreporter Says:

        412 is friggin’ INSANE. And one TA? Jesus… How do you proctor exams?
        I’ve been to rock concerts with fewer people. What’s the number when you officially transition from lecture to a Billy Graham rally? Administrators should realize that the best way to save money is to turn the campus into a shopping mall. Much more profitable…

        I’m assuming that by teaching one of these classes you get more unit release than teaching a “regular” course.

  2. Ian Says:

    Apparently with online homework assignments, some systems allow students to buy more than one access key so that they can use one account for “trial” answers before submitting their real grade. I guess you have to cross reference the class list with those who register online if there’s no built-in protection for this.

    • Massimo Says:

      I am sure that there are ways to cheat the system, but it can never be as bad as having them work on problems and hand papers in — there the copying occurs on a massive scale, is obvious, and there is nothing anyone can do.

  3. Calvin Says:

    At my university–you may have heard of it, I don’t know–some administrators are pushing an even more “brilliant” plan for increasing student density:

    Teach 2 classes at once.

    For example, teaching undergraduate quantum mechanics and graduate quantum mechanics at the same time. Oh, and “just assign the graduate students hard problems.”

    Because we all know the lectures for undergraduates and graduate students are nearly identical.*

    Some departments, such as chemistry, are actually trying this out.

    We have successfully resisted this so far, but don’t know how long.

    *Let me just mention that I’ve found that, for instance, being a senior physics major doesn’t mean that one knows complex arithmetic. I gave a quiz and one question was,”What is the complex conjugate of -3?” I thought one or two might blow it, but fully half gave answers such as “1/3” and “3i” and some didn’t even write down an answer.

    • Massimo Says:

      At my university–you may have heard of it, I don’t know

      Oh, I see, now it is your university… Let me remind you that that was just a loaner, my friend, that university is still mine, you hear me ? 😀

      undergraduate quantum mechanics and graduate quantum mechanics at the same time

      OK, the way it is suggested/phrased is of course ridiculous, but I have been thinking about this problem for a long time, and am becoming increasingly convinced that there is way too much overlap between senior and graduate courses. I think that, unless one teaches the graduate courses at a much higher level (just to be clear: I do not think Shankar is much higher level than Griffiths), it will become increasingly difficult to justify offering them.
      Of course, at that point you face the opposition of experimentalists and many who do “interdisciplinary” research, who will argue that such a high level is overkill, that quantum many-body physics is not really needed in their research area and so on. It is not an easy one to solve, actually.
      If the purpose of the graduate courses is that of bringing up to speed students who did not quite learn what they were supposed to learn in college, then I think the way to do that is simply have them re-take the undergraduate courses (by the way, at FSU when I was a grad student this was almost the norm).

      • Calvin Says:

        The problem, well, no, the end point of this argument is that then one should only invest in and offer the few graduate programs where one can attract top graduate students. Which is where my, er, your university is heading anyway: the large departments will be the only ones who have graduate programs, allow faculty release time to do research, etc., while smaller departments will be forced to be even smaller and to be purely service departments. There is a greater than 50% chance that this will happen to my department over the next ten years. And the University is of course free to make that decision. I only wish they’d be more honest about it, so that faculty who have ambitions to do more than teach 412 students in service course sections could think about something else while they still can.

      • Massimo Says:

        I only wish they’d be more honest about it, so that faculty who have ambitions to do more than teach 412 students in service course sections could think about something else while they still can.

        Well, you know how I feel about that… unfortunately you cannot wait for people to be honest and truthful, because time goes by… so, you give yourself deadlines and at some point you gather the evidence that you have and make that call yourself.

  4. JT Says:

    Yes, asking questions face to face with hundreds of classmates is intimidating – if and when you do get questions, probably the same half-dozen people will do all the asking (sometimes these being the people who are among the least confused – an amplification of the usual effect). However, this generation is very comfortable with the mask (and name-tag) provided by an online question-answer format (even with a virtual audience of millions).

    Are you keeping a private web forum for questions? I experienced it (back in 2002), with an implementation in which the student (identified by name) could start a new thread (in vBulletin style), and other students and/or the instructor were free to respond. It was seldom used, so I thought the strategy a failure at the time. However, my sibling is now taking some courses offering such a forum, and reports that the students are not only asking ~0.1 questions per day per student, but are also answering about 4/5 of the questions themselves, with (at most) a brief concurrence or minor correction/comment by the instructor in such threads. It is probably safe to guess that such environments will seem ever the more natural for even academic questions as time passes.

    Does anyone else have recent experience with this – any negative experiences especially? Does U of A have decent software/support for this? In an adequately equipped classroom, perhaps a hybrid real-time mechanism could be used (students ask questions electronically to the instructor, and instructor responds traditionally).

    • Massimo Says:

      Good point. I have no idea. I shall try and find out. All I can say is, the fraction of students who e-mail me and/or come to see me during or outside office hours is of the order of a few percent. I doubt if an online forum would elicit much more attention, but of course there is only one way to find out. Too late for that this term though.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    412??!! That’s crazy! I think my largest class as an undergrad was around 120!

    • Massimo Says:

      Welcome to 21st century university….

      • JT Says:

        Also late 20th in some places!

        First year biology, two sections with ~750 students each, in 1999. They held it in the auditorium where basketball games were (until a few years ago) played – with plenty of room for more. IMO, the biggest problem was crowding and pushing at the entrances, as many students were rushing to get in and out of the building (which was not close to the buildings where most other science classes were held) during the 10 minute gap between classes.

        Same deal for some courses I didn’t take – intro health sciences and intro to psychology, the latter with ~1200 students. See

        Last I heard, they cut the bio class size down – not sure how much. Haven’t inquired about the other two.

  6. Doug Natelson Says:

    ONE teaching assistant for a 412 person class??!! That is beyond insane. How on earth are you supposed to grade anything at all?

    • Massimo Says:

      The homework is all computerized, and the exams are going to be multiple-choice. To be honest, that is not the worst problem by far. It’s office hours and the sheer size of audience and room that makes this much harder than teaching the same class but half the enrolment.

  7. JaneB Says:

    Also late 1980s! My ‘InternationallyRenownedAncientUniversity’ had lectures of over 700 for the most popular general science classes at first year… the course also included weekly labs taught to 150-200 at a time (so the same lab ran 3-4 times a week, in three different teaching laboratories, with video links for the briefing) which were divided into 20 student blocks each with a grad student stopping us blowing things up (in theory. There was this guy in my group who had spent a pre-university year as a lab bunny in Industry and he showed us lots of ways of making pretty explosions, sparks, doing tricks…). Then we had small group tutorials/problem classes, so that was the space for asking questions. Sometimes you got a great tutor, sometimes your tutor struggled with basic English or was way out of their field and you got little help. Those lectures must have been terrifying to give… but at least there were the smaller group settings as back up. Will be interested to see how it goes!

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