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How to run very large classes

STANFORD -- According to Gil Masters, funny things begin to happen in your life when you dysty teaching large classes.

Recently, Masters, ateaching professor of civil engineering, was one of about a half-dozen passengers who disembarked from a commercial jetliner in Jakarta in the middle of the night. "Suddenly a guy behind me taps me on the back and says, 'I was in your 8 o'clock class. I can't remember what it was about, but I remember it started at 8 a.m.' This tap on the back has happened to me in the strangest places!"

Masters, who spoke March 2 at a “Teachers on Teaching” session arranged by The Center for Teaching and Learning, is well qualified to talk about large classes. Since 1974, he has taught Civil Engineering 170, Environmental Science and Technology. During that time enrollment grew from about 60 students to 620 in 1992. The class size has fallen since then, but still totals more than 400. Although the civil engineer has received numerous teaching awards, including the Walter J. Gores Award and the Bing Teaching Fellowship, he said that attendance in the popular distribution requirement course depends more on external events than anything he is doing. The course's recent peak enrollment came two years after the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.

Before the class size reached about 100 students, Masters said, he was able to be fairly informal and relaxed, with a lot of give and take. With 100 students, however, "I had to be more serious about the class and better organized in my lectures," he said.

The next dramatic change in the nature of CE 170 came when its enrollment topped 324 - the seating capacity of Bishop Auditorium, where the class had been held. At that point, Masters said that he got "booted" into Kresge Auditorium.

"The room is very important. It can really affect the way you teach," Masters said. Bishop, which is one of his favorite auditoriums, is wide and not too deep. As a result, the teacher is not very far from the back row of seats and the room has a long expanse of blackboards. In Kresge, by contrast, the lecturer is up on a stage, there is a big gap before the first row of seats, and the back rows "disappear in the smog."

It's much harder to feel connected with the students in such a hall, Masters said, so he has been forced to come up with a number of tactics to strengthen his connection to the students. For example, he said that he eats dinner about once a week with the students in the residence halls. He also encourages his students to send him e- mail messages, and maintains long office hours and an open door policy. Because the class is early in the morning, he stays around after class as long as students have questions. "If there's no connection, I might as well just play movies and collect my paycheck," he quipped.

Not only did the Kresge move force him to use a microphone, laser pointer and slide projector, rather than just chalk and blackboard, but Masters soon discovered that his department had to pay for the equipment. The charges came to more than $100 per class sesion, in large part, eh said, because he was forced to hire a person from Events and Services to run the slide projector, which was locked in a booth.

"I calculated that the 500 students in the class were paying over $20,000 per session for the course, so it seemed kind of strange," Masters said. He wrote a letter to the administration asking for the key to the slide-projector booth. His letter caused a meeting of administrators, who decided that, rather than give him the key, they would install a second slide projector in the back of the auditorium. "Next time you are in Kresge, look in the back and you will see it there," he said. In addition, he no longer was billed for the microphone and pointer.

The calculation of how much students were paying for his lectures had a direct effect on him as well, Masters acknowledged. "It's a sobering thought just before the lecture. I don't feel I can just wing it. I have to put a lot more thought and preparation into my lectures. Even though I don't get all that money!"

A second reason for being extremely well prepared when teaching a large class, Masters added, is what he calls the chaos factor. The bigger the class, the greater the potential for chaos. "For example, if I make a mistake on an assignment, I get 400 e-mails from students asking about it. I put a lot of work on assignments to make sure there are as few mistakes and as little ambiguity as possible."

Then there is what he calls the 10 percent factor. "In any class, there are about 10 percent of the students who have something weird happen to them that makes you deal with them separately," Masters said. For a class of 30, that is about three students. But for a class of 500, it is about 50. "I've had students who have broken their arms on the way to exams, students who have thrown up during exams, blind students, deaf students, dyslexic students - all of whom you must treat individually. I even had one class where three students each had to take time off because a parent died."

To handle these exceptional cases, Masters has set up what he calls his "oddball file." When of these special circumstances arises, he puts a note in this file and then, at the end of the quarter, reviews it when determining individual grades. "This assures that I don't forget any of these unusual circumstances," he said.

Another major teaching challenge in a large course like CE 170 is the diversity of the students. They come from many different majors; only about 10 percent are from civil engineering. They also range from freshmen to graduate students.

"So how do you present this material and grade the students in a way that is fair to everyone, that gives both the fuzzies and the techies equal opportunities to do well? My answer is to provide students with multiple paths," Masters said::

  • In the standard path, the student does the homework, midterm and the final. Homework accounts for 25 percent of the final grade, while the two exams count for 75 percent. Because the homework and the finals include problems in which calculations are required, the techies have a distinct advantage.
  • To level the playing field, fuzzies can do an optional paper. If they do, then the paper counts for 35 percent of the grade, the homework 25 percent and the midterm and final are reduced to 40 percent.

"Notice that I don't make the paper extra credit. If I did, I'd get 500 lousy papers, which would be absolutely numbing to read through. This way I get a few, very good papers," Masters said.

  • Students with strong science and math skills who want to get more out of the course can choose to do a set of optional problems. In this case, the added problem set is worth 35 percent of the grade, homework accounts for 25 percent, while the midterm and final make up 40 percent.

These problems are much harder than those included in homework. A number involve material that is in the textbook but not covered in the lectures, so the students must learn it on their own. To reduce the temptation to cheat, students choosing this option also must take an extra class test in which they are asked to answer three out of five of these problems correctly.

On top of this, Masters has set up two ways in which students can earn bonus points: reading and summarizing 50 newspaper articles that appear during the course of the class dealing with environmental issues, and writing a critique of an environmental article that he selects.

"If, on the first day of the class, I told the students they had to do all these things for a three-unit course, they would [give me the raspberry]. This way, they do it because it's good for them," he said.

Masters has worked out a way to grade all these options so that those who do only the homework, midterm and final are not put at a disadvantage by other students doing additional work. Essentially, extra effort can raise an individual's grade without reducing that of other students.

Summarizing the challenges represented by teaching extra- large classes, Masters said, "Ross Perot is right. The devil is in the details! With a large class it is the details that determine whether the class runs smoothly or poorly."



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