Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 10. zooming back out - parting thoughts
December 2018 (perspective of an assistant professor)
OK that was a lot of low-level logistical details. Let's end with a few higher-level parting thoughts.
Your students aren't you: You got this job because you made it through over a decade of higher education and became hyper-specialized in an area of research. The hundreds of students in your classes are probably coming from a very different place and time. Most have barely entered adulthood, and it's their first time being hundreds or thousands of miles away from home. And some are the first members of their extended families to even go to college. Try to be aware of the hidden challenges that your students might face. On one hand, it's impossible to scale to a large course without having a strictly-defined set of policies, and you can't make personal accommodations for every student. On the other hand, it's important to recognize when you need to empathize with individual needs. It's not easy, but it's important!
Don't ever get cynical: If you've empowered and delegated to your TA staff, the only issues that will get escalated to you are the most extreme problem cases. Unfortunately, this will give you a skewed view of how students are doing in the course, since you'll see only the most negative incidents. Don't get cynical. If you've set things up properly, the majority of students will be getting a good experience. Most want to learn and do good work; don't let the few negative outliers taint your view of the entire class. Enforce your course policies fairly but assume good faith on the part of your students unless they give you evidence otherwise. If something seems off about a particular student interaction, it's more likely that they're just busy, overwhelmed, nervous, or forgetful rather than them acting out of malice. If you let cynicism get the best of you, then you're doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students who are here giving an honest effort.
Always be improving: Not everything will go according to plan, so don't be so hard on yourself. In addition to updating your postmortem notes for this course, keep a running diary of general teaching notes that transcend individual courses. Reviewing these notes will help you identify what gets you the most upset or anxious while teaching. Then try to make things better next term. You don't need to try to improve everything about your course all at once, or else it will overwhelm you. Pick a small set of targets to improve next time, and focus on those. Each year you'll get better and better, and soon you'll be a seasoned instructor.
Humanizing the large-course experience: You're probably reading this series since you need to teach large courses, where “large” may mean 50 students, or 150, or even 500 students. Despite the known educational benefits of small classes, the reality of higher education today—especially in in-demand fields—is that class sizes are growing larger and larger. Given this reality, how can you humanize the large-course experience for your students so that you're providing greater value than if they had been learning online? What unique value are you adding as a real-life professor? How can you give the highest-achieving students the opportunities to get more deeply engaged while also serving the majority of students who just want to get through the course? To me, this wide variance in student expectations is a huge challenge but also an opportunity for meaningful impact. I don't have any answers here, but I think these are important questions.
If you cared enough to finish this entire article series, then you're well on your way to doing great in the classroom :) Best wishes, and let me know how things go!