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.
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 . 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 ?
 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.