Ok, so maybe professor is not really true. Let’s call it substitute course instructor. Yeah, that’s better.
This last week I had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate engineering course for my advisor who was out of town. I actually really enjoyed it and I learned a lot! I didn’t realize just how much I rely on student feedback while I teach and how hard that feedback is to obtain in a large lecture hall. 6th graders are really easy to get feedback from (at least mine are). If you ask them a question, sometimes half of the class or more raise their hand, some of whom you can almost hear the “pick me! pick me! ooo ooo, me!” from the way they wave their hand around. So even though I haven’t necessarily asked every student in the class what they think (although I’m excited to do this with my personal response lesson), I can get a relative idea of the “state” of the classroom. This was NOT the case in the lecture I taught.
Now we need to take a small step back. I’ve taught an undergraduate engineering course as the instructor before, but it was a summer course and there were only about 15-20 students in the class. I’ve tutored undergraduates in basically every undergraduate math course their is and over the course of my undergrad degree, I developed multiple methods that I could use to help the students learn based on what worked for them. I always heavily relied on feedback! In other words, some ways of teaching worked really well for some, but not for others, so I could always adjust for those individual students. And I also remember that the way I always figured out if I needed to adjust my teaching style or not, was to just constantly ask the students questions.
Although I’ve had these experiences, I’ve never taught such a large class (~100 students) in a lecture hall setup. The course was Heat Transfer and I was lecturing on how to essentially derive a “simple” equation that modeled a much more complex system. Throughout the entire lecture, I was constantly asking questions trying to get feedback to ensure that the students were following/understanding. Although I wasn’t expecting most of the students to raise their hands in excitement like the 6th graders do, I did anticipate that more students would be involved. I’d ask a question and the students would just look at me and stare. So we need to cool down this liquid by transfering heat through this wall to the air. Which side of the wall do you think we should put the fins on to cool down the liquid? With little response, I’d press on with a similar question. It’s 32 degrees out now, which is slightly uncomfortable but bearable right? Now, what if you jumped into a 32 degree pool? Why does the same temperature “feel” so different? And finally, some students would start to respond. How does that relate back to this wall? Then when we actually started deriving the equation, my goal was to actually have them derive it with my guidance. The derivation was building upon what they learned previously, so I wanted them to assist in the derivation. It did work, but it was sort of like pulling teeth to get students to answer. It was almost like the students were like “whoa, why are you talking to us?” and they also seemed nervous to answer the questions. Thinking back to my large undergrad lectures, I don’t really remember much interaction with the instructor either and I never wanted to answer questions, especially in front of that many people.
Even though I think the lecture went pretty well, I couldn’t help but think how much a personal response system could have made it better. Instead of knowing how 5 students (i.e. the ones answering the questions) were doing in the class, I could gauge how the class overall was understanding the material. I had professors in my undergrad class use personal response systems, but never to assess the class during a lecture. They were used for attendance, extra credit, and quizzes, none of which seemed logical to me and I remember hating the fact that I had to buy a clicker for courses that would do this. I even talked to my advisor about this, and he mentioned there are new systems out there where you can have the students text their answer to a number. I’m assuming there must be a program that would take the answers, sort them perhaps, and display them to the class. This would be sweet! This could help turn a potentially uninteractive and potentially boring lecture into something more interactive that could be geared toward the students. There’s also the idea of the SCALE-UP classroom, which seems like an awesome learning environment although it is also a radical change for the professors as well and requires a radical change in the way the classroom is set up. The personal response system or the texting system at least would be a step towards being more interactive.
On an end note, I also found that in some ways the college students are a lot like my 6th graders. First, they really enjoy show and tell. I brought in one of my husband’s model airplane engines that was covered in fins and I held it under the elmo projector and the class just erupted. They also really enjoy stepping out from the norm. For the 6th graders, it’s getting to go outside for class. In the heat transfer class, I kept bumping the wrong buttons on the elmo projector, but one of those times it changed the notes to the negative. Again, the class erupted. I told them I was sorry and I wasn’t even sure I knew how to change it back, but several students immediately said “no, keep it!” And my hand was in the negative as well, so that got the students even more excited. I finished the whole lecture that way because for some reason, it just made the environment more laid back and ultimately, more fun. Again like other fellows have noticed, it seemed weird that such a small change could make such a big difference in the classroom!