McGraw Teaching Seminar: A Deeper Look into the Classroom

Course Observation

For this session, we needed to observe at least one class at Princeton taught by one of our colleagues in the seminar and one online course. I observed a molecular biology course, since I was curious what techniques are used to teach large lectures. Although the class was large, the instructors consistently broke the large group of students into smaller groups that still interacted with the overall class. Tables were given individual assignments and had to discuss smaller aspects of larger problems, which were then combined in a discussion with all the groups. While similar to techniques I have to use in French language classes, seeing it implemented on a larger scale and with more complex problems was useful. The final stage in each activity was particularly impressive — a representative from every group had to explain that group’s reasoning, and the instructors would then tie it all together.

My first year of college, I had taken physics 101, which was a large lecture class that required absolutely no engagement and just expected students to absorb lectures passively. The content of these lectures was often divorced from the homework and exam problems that served as our primary means of assessment. My classmates and I realized that if we wanted to succeed, we needed to do the majority of the “teaching” on our own, and viewed the lecture as an inconvenience. The professor began grading us on our “participation” in lecture given our clicker responses, but only gave us points if we answered questions, indicating that we were merely present.


The Princeton biology course restored my faith in science classes, and reminded me how important pedagogy is in the reception of the material for students. Whereas I had assumed I would love physics, the actual physics class gave me a drastically different impression of the discipline: I did not want to waste a huge part of my college years in anonymous lecture halls not learning, and then be forced to teach myself everything on my own; I did not want to take tests that were designed to be impossible, with average grades between 30 and 50%; finally, I definitely did not want to feel like I was in competition with my classmates, aiming to beat out my neighbors for those those rare A grades. The Princeton class, however, was collaborative. As an outsider, I felt as though I had a real understanding of what microbiology research might be like, what collaborations would look and sound like, and what the bigger picture was.

These issues are analogous to those found in online classes. How do you elicit active learning from students whom you will never meet? How do you encourage collaboration between classmates who have different schedules, different levels of engagement, and possibly live on different continents? Finally, how do you harmonize what is learned and set reasonable learning goals knowing that the majority of the students will not actually pursue the course to the end?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but attending classes from the perspective of an educator made me reconsider my own experiences as a student, which I believe is valuable. It also forced me to consider new strategies to implement in my own humanities classes. While reading is often considered a solitary activity, how do you make the classroom experience productive, collaborative, and structured?