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Making Large Classes Work for You and Your Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

New Engineering Educators 1: Learning Aids

Tagged Division

New Engineering Educators

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Paper Authors


Edward F. Gehringer North Carolina State University

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Dr. Gehringer is an associate professor in the Departments of Computer Science, and Electrical & Computer Engineering. His research interests include computerized assessment systems, and the use of natural-language processing to improve the quality of reviewing. He teaches courses in the area of programming, computer architecture, object-oriented design, and ethics in computing.

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Small classes offer the best opportunity for personal interaction and individualized instruction. But when rising enrollments and declining per-student funding make large classes a reality, all is not lost. Large classes offer many opportunities that small classes do not. If you are prepared to take advantage of them, you can make large classes work to advantage for yourself and your students.

Six areas of opportunity can be identified. First, there is staffing. Larger classes receive more support from teaching assistants. TAs can specialize in different kinds of work (e.g., maintaining the gradebook, managing the web site, setting up programming environments). When one TA is busy with other work, someone else is always available to cover for them.

Second is community. A large class can grow into a supportive learning community. Students have more opportunity to partner with, and learn from, other students. TAs are more effective too, in part because they collectively have enough experience to solve one another's problems. Questions are answered more quickly on Piazza or a message board. Clicker-style polling provides feedback with an impact not possible in small classes.

Assessment also benefits. Grading is more efficient, as startup overhead plays less of a role. Assessing teaching effectiveness is easier, too, simply because there is more evidence. Students can be surveyed after class to see how well techniques have worked. In a small class, this might lead to survey fatigue, but in a large class, a different subset can be surveyed each class day. The instructor can determine more quickly when a technique is not working, and can make corrections sooner.

Content generation. Teaching assistants can provide suggestions for improving content, delivery, and management that go far beyond what the instructor alone could devise. If students are asked to generate content (e.g., worked examples, homework/test questions), a large class can provide a lot more usable material. Common misconceptions become apparent far more quickly, so the instructor can design multiple-choice distractors to call them out, and draft specialized feedback on why each misconception is incorrect.

Research. It’s much easier to do statistically valid studies with a control group and an experimental group in the same class. This bypasses the confounding issue that "it was a different semester with a different instructor, but we also added an intervention …” On subjective questions, the TAs’ grades can be compared with each other, allowing the instructor to identify and correct grader bias and rubric ambiguity.

Recruitment. An instructor of a large class becomes known to a lot more students, and these students are more likely to consider working with you later on. You may become their graduate advisor, or advisor for an undergraduate research project. A large class is also a great place to recruit for independent-study students who may assist one of your research projects or generate resources for later offerings of the same course.

The full paper will discuss how to take advantage of these opportunities, using examples provided by experienced faculty and past ASEE papers.

Gehringer, E. F. (2020, June), Making Large Classes Work for You and Your Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34944

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