Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 4. dealing with start-of-term chaos
December 2018 (perspective of an assistant professor)
Day One of class is about to begin. You've set up your course calendar and policies as best as you can. Now what?
Prepare for chaos during the first two weeks of every term; you probably won't get much research or other work done during these two weeks, so don't stress about it. If you focus on setting up your course well at the outset, then it won't be nearly as much effort to maintain throughout the rest of the term.
My folk theory of why start-of-term is always chaotic, even if you've taught this exact same course before, is that the surrounding environment has changed in the past months or year since you last taught it. For instance, university policies might have changed, details about how classroom are assigned might have changed due to on-campus construction, university I.T. systems for enrollment, grading, and other logistics might have changed, or custom software you use to run your course might have changed. I'm continually surprised by something new each term, and then I get surprised that I'm still get surprised because I should really be expecting the unexpected by this point!
Here are some ways to manage this inevitable chaos.
Classrooms and software: You first need to make sure that you even have a proper room to teach in! For instance, during my first year at UC San Diego, some of the classrooms I needed were still under construction, which was scheduled to finish in the summertime but delayed well into the fall term.
Alternate enrollment mechanisms: Be aware of the nonstandard ways that students can enroll in your course, such as waitlists, part-time extension school programs, exchange programs, or students on academic probation. Again, talk to your department's admin staff about these logistics. Will you be willing to sign their paperwork to let them into your course late? How will you handle early assignments that they might have missed?
The easiest way to manage late enrollments is to not make any assignments due until after the Add Deadline (the deadline to add courses, usually at the end of week 2 or 3). However, that may not be feasible for your particular course. But if you have team projects for your course, don't make any team-based assignments due before the Add Deadline since teams may still be in flux during the first few weeks as students are enrolling and dropping.
Logistically, you'll need to keep track of all of these students in your grading spreadsheet, so find out what unique identifier you can use for everyone. (Names aren't good, since students often use nicknames and multiple students might have the same name.) Do all students get a school-issued ID number? What about exchange students? What about those who aren't enrolled through the regular mechanisms but still need to receive an official grade? In a large course, just keeping track of all students can be a challenge.
Students asking for exceptions to enter your course: If your course is popular, at the start of each term you may get lots of students emailing you or coming up to you after class to ask for your permission to enroll even though they haven't yet met the prerequisites or have a high number on the waitlist. (This also happens during the middle of the term when students want to enroll in your courses for next term.) My policy is to strictly follow prerequisites and waitlist ordering to be the most fair to everyone. It's not fair to let someone “jump the line” to skip in front of other students who have met the prerequisites. However, if a class has free spots left, I sometimes let those students enroll.Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 5. lecturing in front of a large classroom
Appendix: Example start-of-term checklist
You should make your own checklist specific to your course. Here's an example to help you get started: