F6-O/LT4-1 - Skip the clicker: A narrative inquiry of a professor’s ‘Teaching Toolbox’ for large class sizes

3. Research Full Paper
Leyla Nazhandali1 , Desen Ozkan1, David Reeping1, Liesl Baum1, Lisa McNair1
1 Virginia Tech

Fifty minutes may seem like a long time in the student’s chair, but for an electrical and computer engineering professor teaching one-hundred and thirty-five students, each of those fifty minutes is precious. The United States engineering curriculum has many stakeholders—ABET accreditation, course professors (past and post), industry advisory board, alumni, and students in the course—each of whom has varying levels of influence on curriculum design. The increasing number of curriculum stakeholders follows the trend of increases in course enrollment.

Large class sizes are evolving as a necessity of the undergraduate engineering curriculum. The expansion of higher education, as well as the national emphasis on STEM education, has led to large classes as commonplace for many first- and second-year undergraduate engineering programs. The increase in class sizes has yielded a variety of strategies developed by stakeholders to reduce costs (Allais, 2013). Disadvantages of large class learning experiences for students range from the lack of interaction with faculty members to poor discussion sessions (Carbone & Greenberg, 1998). Less engaged students can fade into the background and consider it “easier to do anything you want, sleep, not attend, or lose attention” (Wulff, Nyquist & Abbott, 1987, p. 21). Solutions have primarily taken the form of increased disciplinary checks, such as attendance quizzes, clicker tests, or higher cut-offs for exam marks. Accordingly, large courses can slowly turn into gatekeepers of the degree program.  

Wulff et al. (1987) claim the key to improving large class environments is to enhance instructor-student interaction. A variety of studies provide pedagogical suggestions for large classrooms, such as “muddiest point” and “think-pair-share” (MacGregor, Cooper, Smith, & Robinson, 2000). However, there is a need to interrogate these pedagogical adaptations.  Considering national trends in massifying education, we must ensure these adaptations are not just managing the symptoms. At worst, the adaptations could be enabling larger classes to proliferate without addressing the underlying drawbacks of such courses.

We use narrative inquiry to investigate the experiences of one electrical and computer engineering professor through a single case study. Our case study comprises multiple reflexive interviews contextualized within the history of the department through institutional documents and department meeting notes. After an in-depth member check, the professor became a co-author of the study. The professor has taught ECE courses for thirteen years at a public, land-grant research university. We backdrop this narrative approach with a review of the national trend toward larger engineering class sizes as well as the local context of the department-wide curriculum change. 

During this time, the department received an NSF RED grant (Revolutionizing Engineering Departments) to enact large-scale curricular and culture change in the department over five years. The grant work uncovered faculty-driven pedagogies that had formerly been undervalued by the department and did not receive much attention prior to the award. This work focuses on the emergent pedagogical innovations one professor has enacted to [at least] maintain, [at most] improve, class engagement and participation as class sizes have increased. These pedagogical innovations reveal the multiple ways in which a professor has adapted their teaching practice to the institutional and departmental changes brought on in the past decade.