Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 4. dealing with start-of-term chaos

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.

  • Talk to your department's administrative staff in person to set up logistics such as section scheduling or classroom allocations. They receive tons of emails, especially at the start of each term, so email requests may fall through the cracks. It's also more personable (literally!) to drop by and see them in person and develop good rapport with them. They're experts at these sorts of course logistics, so it's really important to work well with them every term and show your genuine appreciation.
  • Check that your classrooms are equipped with what you need (e.g., a projector) and that the university hasn't changed-up your assigned rooms at the last minute without telling you (yes, this has happened to me ... my classrooms have even changed after the term starts!). If your staff needs door access codes or keys for any classrooms, request them ASAP and test them out.
  • If your classrooms aren't adequate for your needs, again talk to your department's admins to see what they can do; they can sometimes work wonders!
  • Set up automatic classroom lecture video recordings with your university (if available) so that students can later review your lectures. This is good for accessibility and special needs, even though it might decrease in-person lecture attendance.
  • Be extremely wary of trying new course management software, even if it seems shiny and promising. If something worked reasonably well in the past with hundreds of students using it, then just keep it! Don't rock the boat. It's a nightmare to discover software bugs that suddenly pop up during the term.
  • Oftentimes the default university-provided software may not be the best tools for your course. Ask colleagues in your department what they use and have found to be effective.

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

(see all parts)

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:

  • Are all of the appropriate lecture halls and section rooms booked? Does your staff have keycode access if necessary?
  • Did you set up automated video recording of your lectures (if your university supports it and you want it)?
  • Did you pack a fresh set of laptop projector connectors, presentation clickers, and spare batteries?
  • Do you have enough staff for your enrollment size? If not, you may need to recruit extra undergraduate TAs or graders ASAP. (Note that your enrollment size may suddenly jump up at the start of the term if a bunch of students decide to enroll last-minute, and you'll need to scramble to hire more TAs.)
  • Set up your course discussion forum software and add all enrolled students to it; also make it easy for new students to add themselves.
  • Write down all students who have special accommodation needs (e.g., those with notes from the school disabilities office) so you can provide them with necessary accommodations.
  • Write down all students who have enrolled through alternate enrollment mechanisms (e.g., extension students, exchange students, those on academic probation, etc.) since they may not show up on the official course roster. You may need to enter their grades using different forms.
  • Set office hours for yourself and your TAs. Space out the office hours throughout the week so that there's good coverage near when assignments are due.
  • If necessary, book rooms for your TAs to hold their office hours.
  • If necessary, book a weekly staff meeting time with your TAs.