Scaling Up Courses

With the new semester upon us, many people are getting ready to try out new course preps or revisit familiar classes. The too-brief break of the holiday season doesn’t provide much time for preparation, so I find the last days before the semester begins can be a frantic time for revision and planning. I’ve previously addressed strategies for revising a past course, which can be particularly helpful if the dynamics of the course remain generally the same. However, increasing demands on universities for larger classes and different modalities (including fully-online courses, as I addressed in a series last semester) mean that often we face the task of scaling up a syllabus.

Revising a course to accommodate additional bodies (whether 10 or 100) is not as simple as changing the classroom, although it may appear that way in the course catalog.

Here are a few of the steps I’m following in preparing my course for an additional 50 students:

  • Eliminate assignments that have low return on investment. If a course size is increasing dramatically, I find it helpful to be merciless with assignments. It’s better to provide meaningful feedback on fewer, essential, assignments than to dilute time and feedback by providing too many projects for assessment. If an exercise is important for learning but doesn’t necessarily require detailed feedback, consider switching it to a participation or completion grade.
  • Consider peer review for early stages of assessment where possible. While giving detailed feedback on iterative versions of projects (whether written, coded, or otherwise) can be ideal, it can become prohibitive at certain class sizes. Using course management systems tools for peer review or providing time in-class for immediate peer feedback can be a good solution for early stages of projects.
  • Examine the benefits of individual versus team projects. In project-driven courses, deciding whether to require collaboration or focus on individual work can be an essential decision. Individual work by necessity means more time spent grading and giving feedback, but team work can present other problems (particularly when teams hit problems with missing members and inconsistent contributions)
  • Anticipate questions and provide supplementary materials. In my experience, one of the most challenging aspects of teaching larger classes can be answering constant emails (particularly with technical questions, which can be numerous in my field.) I like to take questions from my last time teaching a course and use them to create FAQ pages for projects, which can then be a first resource on the course management system.
  • Streamline grading and rubrics where appropriate. Using rubrics with pre-written comments for common challenges can save time and energy, which I find leaves me free to spend my time writing comments on unique aspects of student’s projects or providing suggestions for future improvement. I’ve addressed grading large-scale online courses here at ProfHacker before, and there are a number of suggestions in the comments for that post.

Ultimately, the specifics of a course revision will depend on the size of the class and the changes in size, location, and resources. Even a move from tables to a room with chairs and attached arm desks can make a difference in the convenience of group exercises, while a switch to or from a computer lab can change the classroom dynamic entirely. Share your strategies for revising a class for new enrollment in the comments.

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flick User Amy]

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