(129d) Leveraging Classroom Management Systems to Enhance the Large Class Experience

deGrazia, J. - Presenter, University of Colorado Boulder
Falconer, J. L. - Presenter, University of Colorado Boulder

The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado has seen tremendous growth in the last five years. The department increased from 450 undergraduate students in fall of 2010 to almost 700 students in fall of 2014. Correspondingly, in spring 2013, we graduated 80 students. According to our projections, using student enrollments in Thermodynamics from fall 2011 – fall 2015 to extrapolate, we will graduate 137 students in 2016 and 176 in 2017. With limited resources, in particular faculty members, graduate students/teaching assistants and space, instructors in the department have had to come up with creative ways to meet the needs of our students.

A major problem facing instructors of large classes is handling the accompanying increased organizational details and at the same time, trying to be as accessible to the students as possible. This encompasses keeping a grade book, entering grades, and forming and grading group assignments, among others.  In addition, the instructor needs to hold office hours, respond to emails, and present reviews. One method that we have adopted with great success is incorporating little-used features of a classroom or learning management system to not only save time, but also to offer our students the same atmosphere and learning environment provided in smaller classes. This is particularly important in the lower-level core courses where faculty availability and classroom resources are often essential for student success.

A classroom management system is an on-line compilation often used solely for keeping grades. There are a number of systems that are currently employed by different universities.  Those used by and/or considered by the University of Colorado include Desire2Learn, Blackboard and WebCT. Currently we are working with Desire2Learn and the methods described below have been used in that system. However classroom management systems are similar enough that these methods can easily be incorporated into others. In fact, we developed many of these practices in one system and easily transferred them to our current system.

Based on both research and experience, our preferred method of teaching is the use of the “flipped classroom” approach where information delivery is outside the classroom. Faculty adopting this approach modify their role from a front-of-the-class lecturer to a collaborative and cooperative facilitator of learning. The flipped classroom results in a shift from covering curriculum to a collaborative effort to master concepts and problem-solving techniques. However, many instructors find it difficult to change their teaching styles because of a lack of time or resources.  Some faculty have expressed concerns that devoting class time to active learning might not provide students with sufficient examples of problem solving or sufficient time to introduce material. A well-organized classroom management system supports the flipped classroom approach, even for those large classes.

Components of this approach include on-line quizzes that test the students’ knowledge of assigned reading material; screencasts that provide supplementary guidance on particularly difficult concepts; interactive simulations that promote understanding by making abstract concepts tangible; and ConcepTests that are used in class to challenge the students’ knowledge and generate discussion. Most of these materials can be found at www.learncheme.com.

The features that a classroom management system provides to insure that the instructor can retain this method of teaching for large classes without increasing the burden include:

  • Modular class design with links for “information delivery”

  • Group formation tools

  • Dropbox, rubrics and grade items for homework assignments

  • Clicker integration

  • Class email

  • On-line office hours capability

Adding these techniques has made teaching classes of over 100 students (and in my experience over 300 students) manageable.

Modular class design and links for information delivery

One of the primary aspects of a flipped classroom or any other approach that focuses on using class time for problem-solving and active learning is information delivery outside of class. A number of tools can be used to provide this delivery, including screencasts, reading quizzes and interactive simulations.  In order to organize this information, a modular approach can be easily set up in the system using a course builder tool. However an essential part of this method is the development of a module where all the content for each class is organized. This includes any screencasts and simulations that are required for viewing before class, on-line reading quizzes which are created and graded automatically, and any other materials such as class problems or additional readings. Once developed, these class modules can be used with any desired modifications every time the class is taught.

Forming Groups

One of the unfortunate consequences of large classes is group homework. Although grading a third of the assignments certainly saves considerable time, forming groups can be time-consuming and frustrating for student and instructor alike. However there is a Group tool in these systems that can control group formation. Groups modules containing a certain number of participants can be set up, and students self-enroll. If preferred, instructors can assign students to certain groups. Grades for homework can be automatically assigned to every member of the group.

DropBox, Rubrics and Grade Items

Most classroom management systems have a DropBox feature for students or groups to submit assignments. The instructor or the teaching assistant downloads the assignment, grades it, and uploads it back to the Dropbox. By attaching a rubric to an assignment, each problem can be graded individually, and by different graders, and the total summed up.  A grade item, whose value is specified by the instructor, is included with the rubric. A grade column is created for each grade item, and the value is automatically entered into the column for each student, even if he or she is in a group, when the grading is completed.   

Integration with clickers

Instructors use clickers in the classroom in a number of different ways. This can include attendance, participation, ConcepTests or polling. However it is time-consuming to upload the clicker grades into the grade book so many instructors wait until the end of the semester to compile them and enter a score. Now iclicker has developed an integration system so that clicker scores can be downloaded into the classroom management system grade book immediately after class each time the clickers are used.

Class email

Student emails take an unnecessarily large amount of time. Often the topic is the same – the students forgot a quiz, their clicker didn’t work, etc. Establishing a class email within the system frees up the instructor’s personal email. The teaching assistant can be assigned to check the email once a day, respond to most of the students, and filter those emails which need to be answered by the instructor. In addition, if the TA sees the same question from a number of students concerning a homework or quiz problem or something that a number of them can’t grasp, he or she can inform the instructor who can then address it in class.

On-line office hours

The most popular tool for both the students and the instructors is the ability to hold on-line office hours and class reviews. Using software such as Adobe Connect, Zoom or GoToMeeting, on-line office hours can be accessed by students anywhere. Students see the computer screen and hear the instructor’s voice. This is especially effective with a tablet. Students can ask questions using the chat tool, or even raise their hands to have their audio enables. The session can be recorded and posted on the site for later viewings. The on-line office hours are linked to the system, and can be set up for specific times and dates, they can be recurring, or new times can be created for reviews or special sessions. The number of students that can be reached is considerably more than could be handled in person. They can also be held at the same time as in-person office hours, however the number of students attending in person office hours has dropped dramatically.

Do these methods work?

The amount of work that has been done just to manage the class and hold office hours has dropped dramatically. In fact the bulk of time is spent preparing class materials, which is as it should be. In the one class where all these methods are used, students who fill out end-of-the semester questionnaires state that the best thing about the classes are the on-line office hours. In addition, the class organization is often praised. The accessibility of the instructor numbers are comparable or even higher than those for smaller classes.  The enrollments in this class have more than doubled in the past few years, yet the student evaluations of the course have stayed the same or gotten higher.