Nine (surprising) things I learned from teaching a class with 500 students

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I was expecting to learn a lot from teaching a course with 500 students. But I was expecting to learn other things that what I actually turned out to learn. Maybe I have to learn these things before I can concentrate on other things I also want to learn!

Here is what I learned most. I formulate them as rules because rules sound more sexy.

Rule nr. 1: No matter what you do, some students will complain. It is impossible to foresee how 500 students will react to a message you write or a change you make (don’t change anything! See rule 3). So the best way is to think through what you want to write and do as good as you can. After the act, try not to get upset or depressed about what some students say or write in response. Most students are nice (See rule 8).

Rule nr. 2: The large majority of students are OK with what you do. I use online forums in my class, and I can see that most complains come from a few out of 500 students. The rest are more satisfied than dissatisfied. In a course community, as in any other community lately with the Internet, it is very easy to raise your voice and be heard by everyone. This is thanks to the platforms we use, that give unproportionated weight to individual voices. This means you can occupy a lot of space as an individual student if you want to.

Rule nr. 3: It is not a good idea to change anything during the semester. When I was student, the only thing we planned was time and place for the next party. Now it seems like students have all their life planned, with job interviews, volunteer work, side jobs etc. Don’t change your plans when you have so many students. At least not without thorough thinking (and piloting). This is related to Rule nr. 2: the desire to change often comes when the few students start to complain a lot. Don’t change, and most students will be happy.

Rule nr. 4: There is a war between learning objectives and evaluation criteria. First I was surprised how terrified students were about how we evaluated them. Then I thought it is normal because our society is built on scrutinizing and critisizing each other. Then I tried to focus on learning objectives instead of evaluation criteria. But then I had to give each student a grade because our university demands it. I am still confused, but determined to think and design my course based on learning objectives.

Rule nr. 5: Written feedback is the currency. When you have so many students, written feedback becomes your currency. Giving good written feedback makes students happy and keeps the doctor away. I have become obsessed with feedback, as my students are. And that is not a bad thing.

Rule nr. 6: Exams and grades are never a good idea (for your students’ health). Related to Rule nr.4. If you have exams, your students are not learning anything, they are just trying to pass the exam and avoid a heartatack. But the problem is that exams are the cheapest way to set up large classes (see Rule nr.7). Unless you are suffering from self-harm tendencies, you would probably design your class with exams and voluntary exercises. But it would harm your students, if not yourself. A better and more satisfying way to design a course is problem-based, portfolio-based, etc. We know that.

Rule nr. 7: Courses will only grow and become larger. My course will most probably have 600 students next year, and 700 the year after. How do we design a course for so many students to really, deeply learn? That’s the nut to crack! At least for me.

Rule nr. 8: The great majority of the students are understanding, nice and loving, as long as you don’t meet them on the Internet! I was surprised to see how nice my students were every time they showed up in my office to talk to me. That’s because I was used to reading their comments in the online class forum. Morale? Meet your students in person.

Rule nr. 9: The semester never ends. I deliver final results for my class in the beginning of June. I still get complaints and students visiting me in my ofice until the end of August. And I have to deliver course evaluation report in September, and I have to start hiring assistants in November. And in between I have to revise and improve the course for the next semester. Help!!

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