Large introductory science classes

The un­der­grad­u­ate course ex­pe­rience at a num­ber of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties across the world in­cludes in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes. Some col­leges re­quire only sci­ence-based ma­jors (in­clud­ing sci­ences and en­g­ineer­ing) to take the in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes, whereas oth­ers re­quire stu­dents ma­jor­ing in all sub­jects to take at least some in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes. All my ex­am­ples are drawn from the United States, but the ques­tions that I raise are of gen­eral in­ter­est, and I’m in­ter­est­ing in hear­ing about peo­ple’s thoughts based on their ex­pe­riences study­ing or teach­ing at the un­der­grad­u­ate level, re­gard­less of ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion.

I want to fo­cus on one par­tic­u­lar type of in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence class: the large in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence class. I’ll iden­tify the three key fea­tures of the courses I’m talk­ing about:

  • The class size is large: Classes with more than 75 stu­dents would qual­ify as “large” in my view, whereas classes with fewer than 50 stu­dents. The 50-75 range is more am­bigu­ous, and may de­pend a lot on how the course is run.

  • The class is an in­tro­duc­tory gen­eral re­quire­ment class: I’m think­ing of classes that first-year col­lege stu­dents (fresh­men) are gen­er­ally pre­pared to take and would take if they have ad­e­quate prior prepa­ra­tion and do not in­tend to ma­jor in the sub­ject. I’m ex­clud­ing Honors classes here (though Honors classes are any­way rarely that large).

  • The class is a sci­ence or math class: I’m in­clud­ing physics, chem­istry, biol­ogy, math­e­mat­ics, com­puter sci­ence, ge­ol­ogy, and as­tron­omy here.

I’m in­ter­ested in the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  • What has been your over­all ex­pe­rience with large in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes as a stu­dent, a TA, or a pro­fes­sor? My gen­eral im­pres­sion is that eval­u­a­tions of these classes gen­er­ally run more nega­tive com­pared to other classes, but I hardly have ac­cess to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple.

  • To what ex­tent did your ex­pe­rience (as a stu­dent) with large in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes in­fluence your de­ci­sion re­gard­ing ca­reer, ma­jor, minor, and fu­ture elec­tive classes? For in­stance, did a bad large in­tro calc class turn you off math? Did a great in­tro chem class make you de­cide to minor in chem­istry?

  • Did your large in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence class make use of mod­ern tech­nolog­i­cal aids such as click­ers or on­line dis­cus­sion fo­rums? If so, how did these af­fect your course ex­pe­rience?

PS1: Here are a few links I get by Googling for large in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes, and some of them may be of in­ter­est: Large In­tro­duc­tory Com­puter Science Classes: Strate­gies for Effec­tive Man­age­ment, Teach­ing Large In­tro­duc­tory Sur­vey Courses, and In­tro­duc­tory Biol­ogy Courses: A Frame­work To Sup­port Ac­tive Learn­ing in Large En­rol­l­ment In­tro­duc­tory Science Courses. There is also some re­search in­di­cat­ing or sug­gest­ing that in­tro­duc­tory sci­ence classes play an im­por­tant role in en­courag­ing or dis­cour­ag­ing the choice of STEM ca­reers, and “fix­ing” such classes has been hailed by many peo­ple as a way of get­ting more peo­ple into STEM ca­reers and also po­ten­tially re­duc­ing gen­der or eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in the num­ber of peo­ple in such ca­reers.

PS2: Clicker tech­nol­ogy has been used in a va­ri­ety of large classes. The sim­plest im­ple­men­ta­tion is to use click­ers to get an­swers to sim­ple mul­ti­ple choice ques­tions (cor­rect re­sponse rates vary­ing be­tween 30% and 70% in gen­eral). For in­stance, this chem­istry lec­ture at MIT uses click­ers in the stan­dard fash­ion (here’s an equiv­a­lent lec­ture that does not make use of click­ers). Eric Mazur of Har­vard, a pro­po­nent of In­ter­ac­tive En­gage­ment, uses click­ers in a more fancy way: he first asks stu­dents to at­tempt the ques­tion on their own and con­vey their an­swer us­ing a clicker, then he gives peo­ple some time to dis­cuss and give their up­dated an­swer us­ing a clicker.