Raising Your Voice: Standing Out from the Crowd in Large Classes.

Academic Guidance

Raising Your Voice: Standing Out from the Crowd in Large Classes.

Last week, I outlined some considerations of attending a public university wherein I concluded that size does indeed matter. Raw numbers make a big difference in the academic world, whether it is the size of a school’s student body or the sum of your SAT scores. Therefore, I would like to follow up with you on a related subject that should be on your mind throughout your college career: course size.

Generally, colleges and universities will advertise low student/faculty ratios in their promotional literature. This is a figure to take very seriously, since it signals in part how available your professors will be for personal consultation during office hours as well as how many students you will be expected to share time with in class. However, small and large schools alike will still probably offer lecture courses in some very popular (or mandatory) subjects that exceed fifty or even five hundred students in the same room together. Professors in such courses may be accompanied by graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) who lead additional discussion sections and oversee the courses’ administrative details. Except at some of the smallest liberal arts colleges, you will invariably take a few lecture courses no matter where you go, and that’s not a bad thing.

Some of my most memorable courses at Indiana  University were in large lecture halls with professors whom I not only admired but also put on elaborate displays of showmanship: they told stories, shared personal anecdotes laced with emotion and breathed life into the dry recounting of finite mathematics and geomorphology. The traditional lecture format has a lot to offer in experienced hands, but from a student perspective it lacks personal interaction with faculty members and your fellow classmates.

There will be times when you need extra help with an assignment or want additional clarity upon the course material. Perhaps you want to request a recommendation letter from your professor, but are unsure whether they know your name. In order to derive maximum value from your lecture course, you’ll want to do more than just sit quietly in the classroom. Rather, you will want to think about ways to actively engage with the class both on a personal and social level.

One major issue regarding large courses is that they can be anonymous. Speaking from personal experience, while I appreciate the chance to sit back in a comfortable seat and listen quietly to a lecture, it is easy to let one’s mind drift to other subjects since maintaining focus can be difficult over a two or three hour period. Taking handwritten notes is one way to alleviate this problem, although I caution you against relying too heavily on laptops in class since they may only contribute to the problem—Facebook is a harsh mistress for your attention span.

My preferred method for staying engaged with a long lecture is to raise my hand to ask questions or to speak when the lecturer prompts the class for an answer. This may seem a bit too obvious, but it’s surprising how few people will take advantage these easy opportunities to engage with the professor. Even if you answer is not quite spot on, they will remember you afterwards and the impression will remain. Class participation is a low risk and high value habit in nearly every instance, plus it may modestly boost your grade. A little bit of prep work can go a long way in such cases, particularly a careful reading of the week’s assigned texts.

Another crucial mantra that I often repeat is, “Know everyone’s office hours, including the student next to you.” Professors are great resources and you should absolutely attend their scheduled office hours—indeed, far too few students do so. However, odds are you may also share a department or major with someone else in the course; this is a great point of departure for forming study groups, but don’t limit yourself to only approaching people you already know. Even if your course does not have organized discussion sections, try to engage your classmates outside of class when you have questions or just to chat for a few minutes after the lecture. Paraphrasing the professor’s words into your own and saying them out loud will work wonders for your memorization and information retention.

Likewise, if your course has TAs, they will most likely host office house as well. In many cases, they may actually be more helpful if you have questions related to specific class assignments especially if they are assigned the task of grading your research papers and noting your overall participation and attendance. TAs may in fact be more important in determining your final grade than the professor themselves, so don’t hesitate to consult them and cultivate a relationship with them outside of class.

In sum, remember that making the most of your courses is up to your personal initiative, especially when you are just one face out of many. Listen actively, build up your personal network with your faculty and fellow students and above all don't be afraid to raise your voice when the time is right.