Instructor Insights

Interacting with Students in a Large Class

Several hundred students take 7.013 each spring semester. In this section, Prof. Hazel Sive describes ways in which she communicates with the students, builds individual relationships, and meets diverse student needs.

Engaging in Classroom Dialogue

"I find that atmosphere to be very, very wonderful—to have hundreds of students actively engaged in learning and thinking together."
— Prof. Sive

At the beginning of the first lecture of the semester, I tell the students that our class is really a dialogue between them and me and Prof. Tyler Jacks, who co-teaches the class with me. I have to say that to them over and over again, but over time, the students come to understand that I’m up there to really engage them in a dialogue, not to just throw material at them.

With 300-400 students in the class, it’s a group dialogue. We can’t really have individual dialogue except in bits and pieces, but we still can have the atmosphere of a dialogue. I try to see the students as 300-400 individual people who I’m trying to have a conversation with. If it works well, and I’m delivering the material well, then I can get a good feeling going, where people are really listening to me, and we’re having a conversation even though some of the people in the conversation are largely silent.

I get really shameless when I’m trying to engage the students. I throw out challenges and give the class opportunities to think about and discuss them. I give them prizes. I walk up and down the aisles with my microphone. I find that atmosphere to be very, very wonderful—to have hundreds of students actively engaged in learning and thinking together.

Getting to Know Individual Students

Outside of class, there is ample opportunity for me and the students to get to know each other one-on-one. I think it’s important for me to get to know individual students, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to get to know me if they want to. In a typical semester, I get to know about a hundred students from 7.013, and this has been one of my great joys over the two decades that I’ve been at MIT.

What has been extraordinary—and what I didn’t expect—is how much I learn from the students every semester. This is my 11th year of teaching introductory biology, and every year, I’m struck by how the students, with less knowledge than I have, still come to me with questions that challenge and stump me. With the right attitude, we can get a really good dialogue going between us. That makes teaching the class both a terrific challenge for me and an enjoyable time for them.

Some key ways in which I interact one-on-one with students:

  • E-mail: Every lecture, I give my students my e-mail address and encourage them to contact me if they need to. I tell them over and over and over, and eventually they get it. Students e-mail me all the time, and I welcome their comments and questions. If they’re particularly good questions, I circulate the questions and the answers to the whole class.
  • Office hours: I usually have two or three office hours per week where I’m just sitting in my office, the door is open, and any student can come in and have a conversation. During office hours, we discuss any questions the students have about the material from the class. Our conversation often digresses from the course material, too, and we might talk about a cool new development in biology or discuss what majors students are thinking about pursuing. Really, anything goes. It’s fun, and it’s a good way to connect with the students. Students can get a substantial amount of contact with us that way. Once students start coming to office hours, they enjoy it, and they come back.
  • Web forum: In Spring 2013, for the first time, we added a forum to our class website. Students can post questions, which are then answered by the course staff or by other students. Sometimes students ask me questions that I think other students would like to see the answer to, and so I post those questions and answers on the web forum.
  • Before class: Before class, I sometimes walk around the room and meet groups of students. Sometimes I start the lecture sitting down with a group of students and have them introduce themselves to the class at the beginning of the lecture, so that we have a bit of personal interaction going on.

Still, it’s frustrating that with 300-400 students in a single semester, I just can’t know everyone. I can’t know the names of all of the students, so I worry that if I know the names of some students, and I speak to them by name in class, other students might feel a bit excluded. I don’t like there to be a feeling of, “Oh, she didn’t even bother with me. I was just excluded from the whole interaction.” I always try to make sure that when we’re speaking about our class, we talk about ourselves as a group and that the group is our measure of who we are. I want the students to feel that there’s a greater whole, that we’re a community.

Meeting a Wide Range of Student Needs

One major challenge with such a large class, especially one in which the students are primarily freshmen, is meeting the students’ diverse needs. MIT freshmen are a smart bunch. They come from high schools where they’ve done very well. Some of them have substantial biology experience in high school and score the maximum score of 5 on the Advanced Placement® biology exam before coming to MIT. Others haven’t had biology since middle school or even elementary school, especially if they’re international students. So we have a whole range of background amongst our students when they enter the class, and that’s a real challenge. We try to meet these diverse needs in several ways.

Helping Struggling Students

We try to give students help right from the beginning if they need it. We also tell them over and over again that they can and should ask for help if they need it. Asking for help is more than fine; there’s a real expectation here that students will need to ask for help, and it’s their right and responsibility to get it. For many of these students, who are all extremely smart, it might be the first time that they’re completely surrounded by other extremely smart people. It might be the first time that they’re not in the top five percent, or the first time they’re getting a B. The work might be much harder than most or all school work they’ve encountered before. It might be the first time they actually need help on school work.

Our teaching assistants work with the students twice a week in small recitation groups of 20-25 students each, and in the recitations, students get personalized attention. Through individual contact, recitation interactions, and grades, the TAs and professors all watch carefully for students who might particularly benefit from additional attention.

For students who need extra help, we try to understand what they need. Often, we match them up with tutors, who can help them fill gaps in their understanding. The tutors are funded by the biology department and are available at no cost to the students, and each student and tutor arranges their own tutoring place and time. During Spring 2013, we had about 25 undergraduate tutors available for our students.

"The tutors are expected to mentor the students and help them be able to solve the problems themselves."
— Prof. Sive

If a student hasn’t had biology in a long time, we might have to start with the basics and say, in a very rudimentary way, “What is a cell? What are the different parts of a cell? What is a gene?” All of these are things we talk about in lecture, but if you’ve never heard of them before, it’s difficult to hear them for the first time in lecture and then to immediately learn and use additional material that builds upon these concepts. The tutors are instructed not to lecture the students and not to solve problems for the students. The tutors are expected to mentor the students and help them be able to solve the problems themselves.

For other students who are not doing so well, the tutors try to identify what it is that a particular student doesn’t understand, and then really work with the student to empower them with understanding. For me, it’s all about empowering the students so that they understand the material themselves; no one is going to be sitting next to them holding their hand when they take an exam or conduct research in a laboratory. It can be very challenging for these students to get through the class, but most of them do.

We also tell the students how well they’re doing and try to calibrate their expectations, because it’s easy for MIT students to get discouraged. At MIT, for example, a B is really an excellent grade, but it’s easy to feel discouraged if it’s the first time in your life that you’re getting a B. We strive to make sure that the students understand that their talent is just as strong as it always was, but it manifests as a B because that’s an excellent grade here at MIT.

Challenging Advanced Students

On the other hand, some students enter 7.013 with substantial biology background. One way we try to meet these students’ needs is by providing special recitations that go beyond what we’re covering in class. The students might, for example, learn to read scientific literature in addition to covering their regular recitation material.

We also try to meet students’ interests and backgrounds by providing five different introductory biology course options, all of which satisfy the same biology requirement. Each version of introductory biology has a different focus. One of them, 7.015, is a small, specialized course designed to accommodate the students who enter MIT with a lot of biology experience, including biology research experience, and are ready for something that is very much a problem-solving course without as much background material.

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