Teaching a large Calculus I class – lessons learned

Last semester I taught a large section of Calculus I. There were 124 students in the class. Teaching a large class is not for everyone, but if you are so inclined, it can be a rewarding experience provided you pay attention to certain details.

Teaching a large class of over a hundred students requires a good deal of management skill. This sort of management isn’t a one-time thing like preparing lecture notes and reusing them. No, this sort of management is an integral component of teaching large classes. There’s management of the students and management of the graduate teaching assistants. If management is not your cup of tea, then it’s best to stick to the usual class maximum of 35 students.

At least one teaching assistant is indispensable, at the very least to help with monitoring exams and collecting and returning homework, quizzes, and exams. Otherwise too much class time will be spent on these sorts of administrative tasks. Liang Zhao served as teaching assistant for my Calculus I class last semester. He did a great job. The students appreciated our seamless efficiency.

There are many ways to assign responsibilities to a teaching assistant. I assigned grading of homework and quizzes (25% of the grade) to Liang. In my classes homework and quizzes are graded generously with relaxed deadlines; there is no reason why everyone cannot get a high score.

I also organized two informal recitation sessions per week. These sessions scheduled from 8:00 am – 9:00 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays quickly became popular especially since Liang is a good instructor. These sessions had the effect of not only helping students to finish their homework, but also of making sure they were on time. Students got into the habit of coming well before 9:00 am for the 9:00 am class. Punctuality is a big deal in a large class. Otherwise there will be students strolling in at all times. It must be enforced through a combination of incentives and consequences. It is an ongoing management issue.

Together, Liang and I worked hard to make this class a success, considerably over what was expected of us. Our reward was that things went well. It would be very easy to spend a lot of time and still have all sorts of problems leading to a frustrating experience. Fortunately our strategies were effective.

I graded the exams (2 tests and a final each 25% of the grade). If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have a good sense of what the students were learning. I got to know the students and was able to give them one-on-one attention – something that is hard to do in a large class. I am not advocating this particular strategy as it is extremely time-consuming, merely noting that I found it effective at communicating my leadership style.

Anonymity in numbers is an issue in a large class. Some interesting things occur when the students think the professor does not know Jill from Jane or Fred from Frank.

One such thing is changing test answers and asking for a re-grade under the assumption the professor made a mistake. My tests are not multiple-choice tests and I give partial credit. It is possible to overlook a correct step here and there when grading so many exams. My solution was to photocopy the exams before returning. Yes, all 124 of them. These are the organization and management issues I was talking about. It’s an ongoing thing throughout the semester. The plus side is that I have a wealth of data that I can analyze at my convenience.

When taking a test sitting so close to each other, it is hard not to accidently look at a neighbor’s test inches away. This made everyone uncomfortable. I handled this issue by using two large classrooms for exams, one monitored by me and the other by the TA. Students were able to sit comfortably at a respectable distance from each other. For the final exam all the students were in the auditorium that seats 260. I thought this was better than splitting up the class.

Room size can become an issue. I had 124 students in a 130 seat classroom. If I could make one suggestion, it would be to reduce the maximum size of the class to 110 so as to fit comfortably in the many large classrooms that seat 130 to 160. The seats are too tightly crammed together making it difficult to get in and out when filled to capacity. I noticed that students preferred sitting on the floor and the steps rather than sitting so very close to each other.

This is especially important in a math class because a larger auditorium may be problematic. I don’t think there is any effective substitute for writing on the board while explaining math. I also think a technology-enhanced lecture is good and I used the computer and projector often. But writing on the board is a basic strategy for teaching math. If the classroom is too large, like for example, the 260 seat auditorium, then students in the back cannot see the board – there is only so big we can write.

It would be a mistake to teach a large class thinking one can do the same amount of work or a little more and get double teaching credits. It is more work than teaching two regular size classes (for a maximum of 70 students). For the administration, it is three sections for the price of two. For faculty it frees up some in-house teaching hours for advising graduate and undergraduate students and mentoring teaching assistants. This is especially so for faculty with limited in-house teaching hours, whether the limitation is due to grant commitments, commuting difficulties or something else. It could be a win-win situation for both faculty and administrators.

In my next post I will talk about the data I collected and the results of my analysis.

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  8. Very well! It’s really a nice post & a good topic to be discuss. Actually i’m also a teacher but cannot manage out more than 50 students. I’m glad to know how much expert you are. Thanks for sharing this great post.

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