My view: Turning 400 into 40

Vincent Hilser, professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is one of four faculty members teaching the fall 2012 Biochemistry course.

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

"Standing in front of the Biochemistry students on the first day of class is a feeling like no other. Sure, there are nerves—400-plus students is a LOT of people, and you just hope nothing goes wrong. But the overwhelming feeling is one of anticipation. We, the four instructors who teach this course, know that those first few classes are critical to achieving one of our primary goals, making the class feel small. We want to make 400 students feel like 40.

"Biochemistry is a large lecture gateway course and is foundational to a broad spectrum of disciplines. This means that enrollment each year will necessarily be high.

"Yet, because of its foundational nature, it is important that the students finish the class with an understanding that transcends the facts they learn from the book. At its core, biochemistry is a synthesis of concepts from chemistry and biology, and our goal is to work interactively with the students to develop an intuition that will give context and clarity to future discoveries.

"On the first day, we introduce all of the instructors. We immediately begin to 'shrink' the impersonal large lecture hall by introducing clicker questions that give us—and the students—a sense of who they are. This introduction is critical. Our goal is that, throughout the following weeks, the students will build on these interactions as they work within our active learning environment to develop and integrate the ideas that are critical to a foundational understanding.

"All of that is in the future. Right now, there are just the 400 students and the challenge of that first step."

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