Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Big Class Next Term

Next semester I get to teach a large survey course for non-science majors. It’s already full and I am giving overrides (I am sure some will drop), and expect the final class size will be the capacity of the lecture hall: 120. Last time I taught it this was the case (hitting 175 that time).

It’s a fun class to teach and I enjoy the challenge, but last time I it was a difficult chore to get them involved in the classroom. At the beginning of the term I used an electronic survey tool, but not enough were bringing their laptops to class and not enough of those were participating in the free response answers, so I eventually dropped it. I did it the old-fashioned way: having them raise their hands for the survey and waiting for someone to speak out loud when I asked a (simple) question. Discussion was limited to small groups, occasionally forcing them to talk to their neighbors for a minute or two, but large-group discussion, even feedback to the whole class on the small-group conversations, was like pulling teeth with tweezers...not exactly painful, just impossible.

This time around, I plan to do it differently. I am going to incorporate a lot more about identifying good-vs-bad science in everyday life than I did last time. I put in a bit of this last time, but not that much and only late in the term, once we had covered the basics of the science concepts for the class. This time I have been collecting “interesting” newspaper, magazine, and web articles this a science component to it (hopefully somewhat relevant to the class topic). I am going to have the small-group discussions again, but force them to report back to the class, and then make those reports part of the homework and test content. Hopefully my teaching assistant will take good notes on the whole-class discussion. I plan on doing this once a week, providing a mid-lecture break every Thursday class session. On Tuesdays, I will do the other thing I did last time: show and discuss videos (web, TV, or movie clips). Again, these were mainly shown last time to identify good versus bad science, but I would do it only on a few dedicated class sessions. This time, I will spread it throughout the term, doing this every Tuesday as the mid-lecture “something different.”

This “every class session” interaction will, I hope, make the class sessions more interesting for the students. I also hope that they learn something from these discussions about being critical of “scientific” information they receive through informal or unintended avenues. It’s going to require some time investment on my part, but I think it will be worth it for me as well. I am looking to the new term.

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