Lemonade in the lecture

I teach a large lecture class every semester, and this past fall I taught or supervised three of them. So I’m always looking for ways to innovate. One of the best approaches in the classroom is to take advantage of the large size of a lecture class to bring experiences that would be impossible in a small class.

Today I ran across an article published a few years ago by Stephen Wolfman Wolfman:2002, who described some aspects of his large introductory computer science course to discuss ways that instructors can make effective use of the large size of lecture classes. He notes several advantages of the large course. Maybe the most obvious is diversity among the students – both of background and opinions. Another aspect of diversity is the greater availability of role models among a diverse instructional staff (which for Wolfman mainly meant that his large TA staff included female members, which would be unlikely in any single small class in his department). He also notes that while a large class may not have a high proportion of students far above the mean (in talent or interest level) it will have a larger absolute number of such students. Exercises and classroom activities that exploit this critical mass of high-engagement students can yield benefits for the class as a whole:

The students' third assignment (of five) was to write a program that would accept a series of words and, for each word, calculate its value in the base 36 number system. Then, the program would report to the user whether the result was prime or composite. We encouraged students to share examples of prime words which they discovered, and the students responded by posting examples to the class newsgroup. Initially, these were mostly amusing English words, but soon a Finnish student chimed in with a handful of Finnish (and French, Spanish, and German) primes. A Vietnamese student contributed a list of Vietnamese words which (when spelled without their accents) were prime in base 36.
In this assignment, the diversity of student background contributed to the excitement of the assignment. Indeed, while I had hoped that different students would find quite different sets of words, I never imagined that they would search in other languages!

He discusses many other examples, including some ideas about how to use the psychology of crowds to bring students toward greater participation on the first day of class.