Having a "Xavier Experience" in a Larger Than Average Class

By 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 with me.
  • 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 their size).

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