January 17, 2002

Profs of Large Classes Engage in Dialogue

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As students slaved in the library preparing for final exams, Cornell faculty members were working relentlessly to improve conditions inside the classroom.

A program entitled “University Faculty Forum for Faculty Who Teach Large Courses,” held on Dec. 10, drew 60 professors to North Campus Community Commons to discuss effective teaching and learning practices, specifically in large courses. Co-sponsored by the offices of the University Faculty and the Provost, the forum was a joint effort to encourage a dialogue about managing large classes and anxieties among faculty members.

The result was a spirited, candid discussion involving teaching techniques, logistics and facilitation of large classes. Utilizing a wireless microphone, professors from varying colleges and departments shared ideas and concerns common to the class setting. Organizers praised the dialogue and pledged to extend the discussion beyond the three-hour session.

“We have never had that group of people in the same room at the same time to share ideas,” said J. Robert Cooke, dean of the University faculty. “I give it high marks, clearly, it was something the faculty members were interested in thinking about and caring about.”

Early in the session, professors shared methods to encourage active learning by students in large lecture sessions, such as “think-pair-share” work with partners and “one-minute papers” assigned during the lecture period. Emphasis was placed on heightening the interaction between students and professors.

“We’re trying to bring the students to the faculty,” Cooke said, who contributed opening remarks. “We want to have intellectually alive engagement that is inherently interesting to both the faculty and the students.”

Later, conversation concerning the facilitation of large lectures spurred more heated debate. Faculty members expressed concern over the University’s current backing for courses with large enrollments. James Maas, psychology, who teaches the world’s largest single lecture at 1,600 students, according to the Psychology 101 Website, condemned the administration for allowing the lectures to operate on “minimal support.”

“Instructional funds for audio-visual equipment and support staff have been constant for two decades while enrollment and expenses have increased,” he said. “I saw that many of us share common needs such as support for course coordinators, better teaching facilities and greater involvement of outstanding TA’s including undergraduates.”

Debate focused on the lack of quality lecture facilities on campus large enough to accommodate oversized classes. Currently there are only eight classrooms that hold more than 350 students, most of which are long and narrow rather than circular — a format professors believe is prohibitive toward listening and involvement.

Bailey Hall, home to Maas’ psychology lecture, is slated to undergo renovation later this year to improve acoustics, install air conditioning and reduce the number of seats available.

“We have a very limited number of classrooms and there are issues of availability, scheduling and quality,” said Patsy Brannon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology. “In a big class, the acoustics can really make a difference and small noises can carry throughout the room.”

At the forum’s conclusion, Brannon pledged to present the support issues raised by the faculty to the Provost and the academic deans for discussion, while Cooke agreed to relay concerns to the faculty senate.

“As a faculty, we must have these courses succeed, so it’s absolutely essential that the appropriate resources are allotted,” said Cooke. “There were also a lot of things mentioned in the forum that wouldn’t take a lot of money to implement, just good leadership.”

Maas, however, believes that the success of the forum will ultimately depend on the University’s response in the form of “dollars of support.”

“[Financial support] is so badly needed to improve undergraduate education for thousands of students,” he said. “I have great hopes that the University will finally begin to listen because at this point, the situation is critical.”

Moderated by Brannon, the forum also served as an opportunity to acknowledge those faculty members with a recognized flair for the lecture setting. Although all members were welcome to attend, special invitations were extended to Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellows, recipients of the University’s prestigious teaching award.

Among those in attendance were Maas, David Levitsky, nutritional sciences, David Gries, computer science, Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education, Daniel Schwarz, English, and Rosemary Avery, policy analysis and management.

Brannon, who once headed a 500-person nutrition lecture at the University of Maryland, praised the “commitment and passion” of those faculty members involved.

“Many of the discussions could have gone longer,” said Brannon, adding that several participants have suggested an expanded format concerning the same topic at a future date. “Some very innovative strategies were discussed about how to make a large class an excellent learning experience. I learned a lot.”

Archived article by Jason Leff