Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 6. interacting with students during the term

In an ideal world, you'd have high-quality one-on-one interactions with all of your students to give each a personalized learning experience. In reality, you have hundreds of students in a large course and can't possibly provide such a personalized experience to everyone. How can you do your best given this scale?

You'll interact with students in three main ways throughout the term: inside the classroom, in-person outside of class, and online. Here are some guidelines for each format.

Inside the classroom

Demeanor: Think carefully about how you want to present yourself in front of a large lecture hall with hundreds of students watching you. Chances are, it will be a very different demeanor than what you present to friends, family, or colleagues. Another issue is that as a new professor, you'll likely look much younger and different than what the public thinks professors look like ...

Given this reality, you must work extra hard to assert your authority inside the classroom while not making students feel uncomfortable. (I've found that this gets easier as you grow older and look more “professor-like.”) For instance, if some students are getting too loud in class, you need to make clear what's unacceptable behavior, even calling on specific ones to be quiet (but see below about pointing out specific students). It may feel awkward at first, but the majority of the class who are not being disruptive will appreciate you taking definitive action.

Pointing out specific students: You'll sometimes need to point out specific students in class, either because they're raising their hand to ask/answer questions or because they're being disruptive. You probably won't know their names; that's OK, they don't expect you to. But here's a guideline I feel strongly about: never refer to a student by their physical appearance. You can't see clearly in a large classroom, and you risk sounding insensitive by misidentifying someone's gender, ethnicity, or clothing choice. It's much better to refer to a student by location, like “yes, you in the second row behind the railing” while pointing at them. Don't refer to entire groups of students by appearance either. Bad: “Can all these Asian guys here please quiet down?” Good: “Can this group over here please quiet down?”

Humor or sarcasm: You may be known to your friends as someone with laser-sharp wit who burns everyone with sarcastic zingers. If that's the case, I recommend leaving your stand-up comedy career outside the classroom. Humor and sarcasm are often made at the expense of others, and while that may be fun when you're roasting your friends at a rowdy party, it's definitely not OK in a large classroom with hundreds of students present.

If you're new to teaching, you may feel an urge to liven things up or impress the class with funny slides, off-the-cuff remarks, or improvised jokes; but my advice is to just stick with teaching the core material well. Even remarks that you think are innocuous could end up affecting students in ways you never considered. For instance, it may be really unsettling if you laugh sarcastically at what students say to you in class, even if you're trying to be lighthearted. There's a huge power imbalance between you (the instructor) and your students, so your laughter can easily be taken the wrong way. After all, they mustered up the courage to speak up in class, only to have the instructor laugh in response. Bottom line: get comfortable teaching the material first, then maybe add humor later when you get a better sense of your audience.

In-person outside of class

It's important to make yourself available outside of class to give students the opportunity to talk with you in-person. Otherwise what extra value do you provide beyond an online course where students just watch your lecture videos and turn in assignments online? Real-life human contact is what you bring to the table.

That said, it's critical to set boundaries so that this doesn't take up all your time. Here's what has worked well for me:

  • I stay in the classroom for 10 to 15 minutes after every lecture and encourage anyone to come talk to me then. If I need to walk to another meeting right after class, I tell interested students to come with me and talk while we're walking.
  • I set one hour of weekly office hours and periodically remind students that they can come talk to me about anything they want, not simply about course material.
  • But I don't take any other requests for meetings during the term, since doing so will set up an unintentional filter that biases against students who don't feel as comfortable requesting meetings with professors.
  • I also don't accept requests on social networks (e.g., Facebook friend invites) or invitations from students to attend school events while they are enrolled in my course, since I don't want to give the impression that I'm favoring certain students.

Online interactions

In a large course, most of your interactions with students will probably take place online.

First set up discussion forum software to interact with students online; don't use email since it's easy for messages to get lost in the mix. In particular:

  • Encourage students to post questions to everyone on the forum instead of messaging the staff privately. The benefit of a large course is that students will often chime in to answer each other's questions.
  • Disable anonymous posting on your forum. This helps get rid of most disrespectful posts. Some forums like Piazza have a nice compromise where students can post anonymously to one another so they're not as self-conscious about asking questions, but the staff always sees everyone's names.
  • If someone is behaving disrespectfully on the forum, send them a polite but firm private message to make them aware of proper etiquette. Don't publicly shame them with a harsh response that's visible to everyone. If this issue comes up frequently, write up a set of etiquette guidelines on your course syllabus and post it on your forum as a reminder.

Delegate to TAs: Depending on the type of class, you may get a lot of forum questions, especially around assignment due dates. For instance, classes involving computer programming will often be filled with questions of the sort “Why doesn't my code work? I think it's right, but it doesn't work! [pastes in 100 lines of code]” The only possible way to keep up with this flurry of forum traffic is to let your TAs handle most responses and only have them escalate issues to you that they absolutely can't handle. I'll discuss TA forum protocols in Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 7. managing and empowering your staff.

Tone: As an authority figure, it's easy for even neutral-sounding words to be misinterpreted as something mean-spirited. Imagine a student is new to college and makes a naive assumption in a forum question during the first week. If you respond curtly with “No, you're wrong. Read the syllabus again.” it's not only disconcerting to that student but also gives the hundreds of other students who are reading the forum a bad first impression of you. When posting online, err on the side of being more friendly. A better response would be, “That's not a correct assumption. Check out this part of the syllabus again and let me know if that clarifies your question.” But even better is delegating to your TAs to answer these sorts of routine questions so that you get involved only when there are special cases that warrant your attention.

Front page of student newspaper: Related to above, assume that everything you write online, both in the course forum and elsewhere (e.g., on your personal website or social media accounts) will appear on the front page of the student newspaper without any surrounding context and labeled in the most unflattering light. Thus, resist any urges you might get to overreact and post overly-harsh messages to everyone on the forum, even if some students are being disrespectful. (Privately message those students to deal with them individually.) The majority of students are here giving an honest effort, so it's offputting for them to see harsh messages coming from their instructor. Delegating to your TAs will curb this temptation.

I also recommend never posting anything about your course or students to social media (especially when you're in a bad mood!), even to what you think are private groups. Nothing is truly private online, and you'll probably come off as sounding unprofessional.

Periodic announcements: I sometimes send a weekly forum announcement to keep everyone updated about the most pressing logistics and course updates. These posts are my chance to show that I care about the course and am giving it my personal attention. Yes, all of this information should be on the syllabus, but sending out periodic announcements is a good reminder for busy students who have a lot on their plates. I also occasionally make enrichment posts such as links to supplemental readings and announcements for relevant on-campus talks or events. But I'm careful not to post these too frequently and to also mark such posts as “[enrichment]” so that students know they're not responsible for learning this material for assignments or exams. Copy the contents of these announcements to a notes file so that you can send them out again during similar times in future terms.

Archiving forum insights: The forum can be a great source of insights about what's working well or not well in specific parts of your course. In particular, unclear wording on assignments often leads to forum questions that your staff will need to clarify. Make it a habit to go through forum posts at the end of every week and transfer some of the insights you gain into:

  • the bottom of your assignment pages as FAQ entries (Frequently Asked Questions)
  • your private postmortem document for what you can improve the next time you teach this course to eliminate these points of confusion for students

It's critical to do this every week since the context will still be fresh on your mind. If you wait until the end of the term to do this, then you'll be too tired by that point and you won't want to look over all of the hundreds of posts over the entire term.

Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 7. managing and empowering your staff

(see all parts)

Appendix: Example weekly checklist

You should make your own checklist specific to your course. Here's an example to help you get started for what to check up on at the end of every week:

  • Look through your course discussion forum to add entries to your private postmortem document.
  • Update a personal to-do list of logistics you're responsible for as the instructor. Include information about students who reported special needs so you can make sure they don't fall through the cracks throughout the term. This is critical to track, because you may have a legal responsibility to accommodate those needs.
  • Update your private notes file as you make periodic announcements to students and logistical announcements to your course staff. That way, the next time you teach you can just follow the same templates.
  • Check the logistics (e.g., class sizes, classrooms, times) for next term's course(s) that you'll be teaching, since you'll need to pin down those details well ahead of time.
  • Start finding TAs for next term's courses, since you'll need to do this well ahead of time to get your preferred choices.