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Making size matter less
Berkeley profs take new approaches to personalizing large-enrollment courses

| 03 March 2004

 



You’d never know you were in a large-enrollment class: This semester Ruth Tringham (above center, holding cup) is teaching Letters & Science 127, which builds upon the "successful experimental teaching" of her innovative Anthropology 2 class. In both courses, Tringham assigned students to sit with their discussion sections during the large class meetings, giving graduate student instructors another means to assess participation, and students opportunities to build bonds with their teammates.
Peg Skorpinski photo

“I assumed it would be like other big classes,” says sophomore Lizzy Ha when asked about what her expectations had been for Anthropology 2: Introduction to Archaeology. “I thought it would be large and formulaic, with no class participation.”

Many on campus share Ha’s former preconception about large-enrollment courses — opinions shaped in many cases by their own experiences with them as undergraduates or instructors. The most recent statistics on courses enrolling 200 students or more come from 2001-2002. Though the 172 classes in that category represented only three to four percent of those offered to undergraduates during that academic year, new freshmen and new transfers took, on average, 4.3 and 2.7 large-enrollment courses respectively in their first year at Berkeley.

Rather than the lecture-based survey class Ha and 200 other undergraduates anticipated, however, Anthro 2 last fall combined research- and group-based projects. Anthropology professor Ruth Tringham prepared detailed guides to the concepts in the course reading, which she then posted online. “I wanted to try an approach where there was no classroom lecture,” says Tringham, who has taught the course six times before in a more traditional way.

Along with others in the department, Tringham had long found teaching Anthro 2 “absolutely deadening.” Her desire to address that dissatisfaction served as the impetus to radically reshape the course. To offer students an alternative to standard assignments, she built multimedia training into the course so that they would be equipped to create content-rich final presentations.

Tringham, a widely recognized pioneer in course enhancement, was appointed to the Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education in 1998. During her three-year tenure in that position, she worked with her colleagues to develop courses where students would use multimedia tools to build virtual archaeological sites on the web, which included the imagined narratives of their inhabitants. Her goal has long been to create courses that enable students to become more actively engaged in the learning process.

Over the years, Tringham, along with colleagues Meg Conkey and Rosemary Joyce, has explored “the feminist practice of pedagogy” as a means to approach archaeology nonhierarchically. By way of explanation, she says, “We try to guide the students to find the knowledge themselves.” One way that translates into actual teaching practice, Tringham says, is through group projects where students engage with teams in ways that mirror real life. That approach can be adapted to many formats, she notes, but what’s key is that students “are coming to grips with the questions themselves and learning to evaluate information.” She equates the traditional teaching model with banking, “where you pour knowledge into a student and hope to get some interest back.”

The big(ger) picture
Tringham’s efforts reflect a movement on campus to examine and redesign large-enrollment courses. Love them or loathe them, proposed increases to the student-faculty ratio in the state budget ensure that these classes will remain part of the Berkeley undergraduate experience. The campus has put energy toward providing faculty teaching large classes with increased support — including reduced administrative workload — as well as assistance for pedagogical innovation.

Large courses were the focus of a campuswide dialogue during last spring’s e-Berkeley Symposium, “Rethinking Large Enrollment Courses: New Ideas for Teaching and Learning,” which drew 120 participants — half of whom were faculty who teach such courses. Other participants were interested graduate student instructors (GSIs), students, and staff. The subject was then further explored in the self-study that the campus completed for its institutional re-accreditation report last year.

“The recommendations that emerged from the symposium and the accreditation self-study are beginning to be implemented in various ways,” says Christina Maslach, vice provost for undergraduate education. “For example, we have gotten grants from the Mellon Foundation and from Hewlett-Packard to fund diverse approaches to the redesign of such courses. And we’re using technology to develop requested instructional tools, such as an online gradebook to reduce administrative burdens on faculty.”

Campus administrators and faculty recognize that a single solution will not work across a variety of disciplines. Rather, says Maslach, a range of models that combine traditional lectures, web-based tools, and collaborative learning are all part of the University’s plan.

No right answers
Ruth Tringham was one of 13 faculty who participated in last summer’s Mellon Faculty Institute for Undergraduate Research. The three-week intensive was designed to help faculty members incorporate research acitivities and assignments into their undergraduate courses, in order to teach students how to use the Library’s print and digital resource collection.
[See www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2004/01/21_mellon.shtml>.]

During the institute, Tringham decided to abandon Anthro 2’s lecture format completely. She resolved instead to put a guide to the course literature online in advance, a move, she reports, that “involves hard work, organization, and timing, but makes teaching really enjoyable.” The guide, built around Flash slides that thoroughly outlined key points in the reading, included supplementary images and maps. [See www.mactia.berkeley.edu/f2003/anthro2/infoguide.html.] It also provided a framework for discussons within the sections that met before the larger class. “The point of the in-class forums,” explains Tringham, “was to highlight particular questions, opinions, or themes based on what students had already discussed in the section.”
Without the grind of preparing twice-weekly lectures, Tringham was free to act as a guide rather than an authority, assisting students with the “ambiguity” inherent in her field of study.

“What makes archaeology difficult,” says Tringham, “is that there’s not one ultimate true history. The past is written by many different people who view what we excavate differently.” What this adds up to, she says, is a dearth of “right answers” and a host of ethical questions for students to consider. “If you have a prehistoric burial site,” posits Tringham, “and a Native American regards it as sacred and says it shouldn’t be disturbed, while an archaeologist sees it as a source of information, who is right?”

To put her philosophy into practice, Tringham empowered her GSIs to select archaeological sites based on their own areas of research for their sections to investigate. Discussion sections first tackled the course’s weekly topic together, relating it to their particular site, and then continued the conversation in the larger class where they shared their findings. The sections also engaged in role playing, allowing students to explore their relationship to their particular excavation site through such themes as social inequality, rituals, and belief systems.

Within sections, the students also learned PowerPoint and honed their presentation skills. In addition to integrating technology and emphasizing learning communities, the course addressed research competencies, information literacy, and critical thinking. “One of the worries with this kind of teaching is that students aren’t learning enough,” says Tringham. “My whole attitude is that you need to show them where to find the sources for the facts and how to critically evaluate them. If you just give the knowledge on the page, they’re not going to be engaged.”

Possibilities beyond the podium
While for many instructors a wholesale course redesign might be too time-consuming, an incremental approach can yield surprising results. “When you look at the large-enrollment course and see only the lecture hall, you’re missing an important component,” says Linda von Hoene, who directs the Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center. “Much of the learning that takes place in these courses happens in the small-group setting of the discussion section.”

Physics professor Bob Jacobsen would concur with that statement. Lectures, he says, are “unavoidable” in Physics 8A, an introductory course that typically enrolls 250 students (out of a potential maximum of 350), the vast majority of whom are not planning to major in that subject. “The department,” he says, “has been trying to make the other parts of the class be more personal, small-group-focused, and worthwhile.”

Two years ago, reports Jacobsen, Physics 8A was “essentially dysfunctional.” Crowded three-hour lab sections of 45 students each met every other week in conjunction with the course’s three weekly lectures and one-hour discussion section. In the labs, Jacobsen says, “GSIs were basically babysitting students and answering questions to the best of their ability.”

To revitalize the course, the physics department incorporated a new, skills-based approach to help students develop a conceptual understanding of physics. The primary agents of change were GSIs, who now play a more prominent role in Physics 8A. To become more pedagogically effective, GSIs participate in three training sessions before the semester begins. Throughout the course they meet weekly to address teaching issues as well as course logistics.

Physics 8A now is structured around three hours of lecture and four hours of what the department calls “active learning activities” each week. During the latter, GSIs oversee and work with sections of 20 students who solve problem worksheets in small groups of three or four. “Having two-hour discussion sections where the GSI gets to know the 22 students,” says Jacobsen, “is much better than one hour where people come and ask homework questions.”

“Physics is the kind of subject where one really needs to practice and work out problems to learn,” says the course’s head GSI, John Burke. “In the past we asked students to do that on their own time, but now we’ve structured those activities into the labs so we’re right there with them.”

Though the bulk of the department’s efforts to improve Physics 8A have been focused on the dicussion sections, Jacobsen takes great pains to make his lectures interactive. He regularly asks students to hold up their fingers to indicate their prediction of a problem’s outcome. “Even with 300 people,” he says, “you can have an extended conversation.”

One of Jacobsen’s older colleagues disparagingly refers to this method as “the Phil Donahue approach to lecturing,” Jacobsen says. “He thinks the right way is to read perfectly prepared notes — like the State of the Union address.”

Lessons that cross disciplines
For those who teach large-enrollment courses in other departments — and who, unlike Jacobsen’s skeptical colleague, are willing to try new approaches — Jacobsen says that the applicable lesson is “pay attention to your GSIs. Set up a system to make them your partners in teaching.” The innovations in Physics 8A have paid off; the course now typically fills its 350 slots and boasts a wait list. Previously, many students “voted with their feet,” says Jacobsen, taking the course at a community college, then transferring in the credit.

Ruth Tringham says the changes in Anthro 2 have been “incredible.” The students demonstrate a much-improved attention span; “they don’t have that glazed-over look,” she says. Her message to other faculty is that when course content is accessible online, “you don’t have to repeat your lectures.” Instead, she says, “you can focus on keeping your students up to date.”

An informal “Topics on Teaching” discussion, “Personalizing the Large Enrollment Course,” will be held Wednesday, March 10, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Heyns Room of the Faculty Club. Two recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award, Martha Olney of economics and Jeff Reimer of chemical engineering, will address techniques they use and lead a discussion. No RSVP is necessary.

The Faculty Seminar on Teaching with GSIs in Large-Enrollment Courses, offered by the GSI Teaching and Resource Center, will be held on from 2 to 5 p.m., March 31, April 7, and April 14, with space for 20 faculty members who will attend all three sections. Professors Martha Olney and Jeff Reimer will address how to encourage GSIs and model interactive approaches to teaching. Other presenters will include psychology professor Martin Covington, anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce, and a panel of GSIs and undergraduates. For information, contact the GSI Teaching and Resource Center at gsi@berkeley.edu