a "Xavier Experience" in a Larger Than Average Class
Timothy T. Horan, Biology Department
While interviewing candidates during the recent scholarship competition held on
campus, one question my team asked all applicants was, "Why are you interested in
Xavier?" The responses we heard ranged from "Good academic reputation" to
"Attractive campus" to "Near home." No matter what other reasons they listed,
however, nearly all of our interviewees also cited small class size as an important factor
in their decision to apply to Xavier. They stressed their desire to be more than just a
number and to have one-on-one relationships with their instructors.
In my office in Albers Hall, I often hear student tour guides tell prospective freshmen
that small class size is a valuable part of a Xavier education. "The average class size is
22 students, and the student/teacher ratio is 17 to 1," the usual tour goes, typically while
the group is being shown Albers 103, a lecture hall that seats 102 people. I am very
happy that the small class experience where students receive individual attention from
their instructor is something that is valued here at Xavier. But the reason we have
lecture halls like Albers 103 is because some of us (especially in the introductory
science courses) are teaching large classes.
I have several concerns when teaching a large class, both for the students enrolled and
for myself as their teacher. I want the students to have that "Xavier experience" they
have been promised and for which they are paying. I want to get to know my students
as individuals and as much as possible to have a one-on-one relationship with them. These desires on my part are not purely selfless because I believe that the learning environment in the classroom is improved when the students realize that they and the
teacher are members of a team working together toward a common goal. This
realization on the part of the students is only possible if they are comfortable in their
relationship with their teacher. Another reason for my wanting to get to know the
students is that I will be asked by a number of them in the future for letters of recommendation, which are easier to write if I know more about the students than the
grade they earned in my class.
In order to give my students the one-on-one relationship they seek at Xavier, I have
developed a few techniques to make my classroom feel much smaller than a lecture hall. I use these techniques in Anatomy and Physiology I and General Biology II, each of
which averages approximately 65 students. However, I think they would be useful
regardless of class size in fostering good relationships with students. First, because one of the most important ways to assure students that you are concerned about them as individuals is to know their names, I try to learn all of my students' names by the end of the first week of the semester. In order to do this, I take
pictures of the students on the first day of class when I call roll. I photograph the
students in alphabetical order in groups of six and then use the pictures as flash cards to
help me memorize names. I try to begin using students' names in class as soon as possible, and after I give a quiz during the second week of the semester, I test myself to
see if I can hand back the quizzes without having to call names. The effort has been
appreciated as I have had a number of students comment on my teaching evaluations
that they were impressed by how quickly I knew who they were. In addition, the
atmosphere in the classroom is made more intimate when students are not anonymous
even if they are sitting in the back row of a large lecture hall such as Albers 103. This
name-learning technique would be just as effective in small classes, and the pictures can
be useful years after the class in order to jog your memory about a particular student.
A second technique I use to get to know my students is to meet with them individually
in my office at the beginning of the semester. The first assignment of the semester is to
send me an e-mail message with a list of times that they are available for a brief (10 to
15 minute) appointment. I then e-mail them back informing them of the day and time we
will be meeting. The first time that I tried this assignment, I did not make it worth any
points toward their final grade, and although most of the students took advantage of the
opportunity, many did not. Since then, I have made the assignment worth 5 points out
of a total 600, and while it is less than 1% of their final grade, the vast majority of
students set up an appointment. In order for the student to receive credit, the meeting
must take place before the first exam. This assignment has a number of purposes in
addition to helping establish a relationship between the student and myself:
- It forces them to use e-mail and to begin becoming familiar with the computer
technology available to them at Xavier. To ensure that my students are not
relying on their computer literate roommates to send the message for them, I
require that they use their 6-digit Xavier e-mail address in their correspondence
- It makes all of the students come to my office at least once during the semester
and realize that it is not a horrible place to visit!
- It helps me put faces and names and personalities together because while the photographs are helpful, baseball caps and changing hair styles can limit their utility. It gives the students an opportunity to talk about why they are taking the class,
their choice of a major, and their long-term goals. Many of them enjoy the
chance to talk about their aspirations while others need to be reassured that it is
all right to be undecided about what they want to do with their lives.
- It gives students an opportunity to ask any questions they might have. I have
found that many students take advantage of this time to raise questions they might
feel uncomfortable asking in front of the entire class. For example, the main focus
of General Biology II is the study of evolution, and I have had a number of students raised in fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who want to talk about the relationship of religion and science.
- This meeting is also an excellent opportunity to discuss any special needs the
student may have due to physical or learning disabilities and to fill out the
paperwork from the Learning Assistance Center.
- I use the meeting as an opportunity to stress the things students will need to do in
order to be successful in the class. While this information is in the syllabus and
we cover it in class on the first day, I hope that they definitely take it to heart
when they hear me saying it directly to them in a one-on-one situation.
As with the photographs, these individual meetings would be just as useful in small classes, and would be even easier to schedule for fewer students.
Third, so that my courses have some of the benefits of small classes, I encourage group
discussion among my students. I believe that when teaching science, it is necessary not
only to present the content, but to do so in a way that stimulates students to think about
it in a scientific manner. As developing scientists (and citizens), students need to learn to examine data critically, to formulate alternative hypotheses, and to design experiments
to test these hypotheses. This type of approach to teaching science more properly
prepares students to deal with the subtle complexities of the issues they will be facing
both in future classes and in their lives.
In order to stimulate the students to think critically about the issues we are addressing in
class, I encourage them to get together outside of class in groups to discuss the
material. To encourage this kind of discussion, for each exam I distribute extensive
study guides which ask questions that require students to synthesize information from
class and apply the information in solving problems and analyzing situations. Students
are motivated to use the study guides because these are the kind of questions I ask on
my exams. Because of the level of difficulty of the questions, the students are also
motivated to work together. Most of my students, who are primarily freshmen living in the
dormitories, have little problem establishing these out-of-class study groups. In addition, because they work in small groups in the laboratory courses that accompany the lecture course I teach, most of the students have a group of fellow students with
whom they feel comfortable studying. While these out-of-class study groups cannot
take the place of the kind of in-class discussion possible in a class of 22 people, I find
them to be an important learning tool for a large lecture course.
In closing, I would like to say that even though
the scholarship applicants I interviewed stressed small class size as being important in their college
search, what I really think that they are seeking is the kind of one-on-one relationship with the teacher they
anticipate having in a small class. I hope that I have established that kind of relationship
with students in my larger than average classes by using the techniques listed above, and
I hope that I may have inspired some of you to try them in your classes (regardless of
Top of Page