Large introductory science classes

by VipulNaik 1 min read15th Sep 201315 comments


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.