J. Ghiara

University of California San Diego (UNITED STATES)
Teaching to very large classes of fiercely competitive premedical students at a major research university such as the University of California San Diego presents some unique challenges to curriculum design and necessitates pedagogical innovation. The new trend towards larger classroom enrollments to accommodate the growing student body while working with severe budget cuts has required very focused effort in developing new strategies to address the challenges of maintaining rigorous learning standards in these settings. While large class sizes are not uncommon in universities in the USA, they are usually restricted to elementary (lower division) classes offered to freshmen. However, with a student body of up to 6000 students in the biology division alone (more than the total undergraduate enrollment at many universities), class sizes for specialized, upper division courses have been raised to the maximum on campus rooms can physically accommodate, which is around 475 per class. Each class is assigned up to fifteen teaching assistants. When a lecturer is assigned two classes, this amounts to over 900 students and about 25 teaching assistants to teach and train, each quarter.

Innovative, flexible, curriculum design which allows for students to demonstrate their unique interests in the course work, to undertake research projects and present their findings to the class have helped create a virtual-small-classroom experience which many thrive on. The use of web-based applications have allowed for online discussion rooms to be maintained for promoting learning outside the classroom as well. The web-based learning tools have also provided invaluable opportunities to monitor the teaching-learning dynamic between the students and each of the teaching assistants.

Every aspect of the educational experience is affected by class size, from in-class teacher-student dynamics, examination formats and grading, to ensuring there are opportunities to recognize students who are the leaders in critical thinking (very useful in addressing the hundreds of recommendation letter requests each quarter). A combination of computer and web-based technologies and innovative curriculum deign has been used to address the unique challenges with very favorable results. Lessons learned from the experiences in the use of these innovative strategies may be adopted to similar settings at other universities and perhaps adapted to be implemented in online, web-based courses which reach large numbers of students, effectively.