Developing sophisticated but essential learning skills is especially challenging in large classes. That’s why we regularly report on strategies that faculty members have developed and are using in large classes. The cases in point here are three different biochemistry courses in which faculty members have been using online, asynchronous discussion groups to develop problem-solving skills.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
teaching large classes
I work in a department that regularly enrolls 250 students in first-year classes, as do many other departments in colleges and universities. In my case, the situation is complicated by a small graduate program, too few teaching assistants, and an inability to break the larger classes into smaller sections for discussion. This makes for a very challenging teaching situation. I use groups in the large class one day per week, using activities I described previously in The Teaching Professor (March 2003). Since then, I have worked on solving the staff problem with senior undergraduate students. I call them classroom assistants (CAs).
Once I passed my 50th semester of introductory biology, I began to regret that my profession doesn’t have a real apprenticeship for teaching—why should every young professor facing his or her first big class…have to make the same mistakes I did and, perhaps more important, why should they not know that everybody…has the same problems?
If you think everybody’s pretty much on board with the idea of active learning, think again. I was surprised to find an article that in its opening paragraph describes active learning as “a philosophy and movement that portends trouble for the future of higher education and the American professoriate.”
Although group work can provide a welcome change to the regular classroom routine, the results are rarely all positive. Invariably, one or two students in
Jonathan P. Mathews, assistant professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering at Penn State University, teaches a high-enrollment (more than 400 students) general education online course, Energy and the Environment. Although he has two teaching assistants, the logistics of managing such a large class would be overwhelming without implementing the following course design and management ideas.
Have you tried implementing some active learning strategies in a large course only to find students resisting those efforts? You put students in groups and give them some challenging discussion questions, only to see most of them sitting silently while a few make feeble comments to which no one in the group responds.