Coupled with the waves of excitement, anticipation and hope of a new school year, UC Berkeley’s infamous large-size courses await new and returning students.
Campus sophomore Ansh Vashisth described his first impressions in large classes, such as CS 61A, Data 8 and Physics 5A, as humbling. While sitting in lecture halls that house hundreds of students, Vashisth recalled being surrounded by individuals all at unique points in their learning.
“I would see people around me who avidly understand the material, but I have been throwing my head at this and it’s just not sticking,” Vashisth said. “Having these big classes remind you that there are a lot of people trying to learn the same stuff as you. But it also means there are people who are just as confused as you.”
Lecturers of these large courses try to utilize the overwhelming magnitude of students to their advantage. Campus computer science professor David Wagner and campus molecular and cell biology continuing lecturer Robin Ball both emphasize the effectiveness of peer instruction, a teaching methodology that focuses on peer-to-peer learning.
Ball explains that throughout the first days of class, she encourages students to chat with those around them. Her intention is that students will hopefully get to know each other, form study groups and hold weekly review sessions as the class progresses.
“In big classes, it’s important to form a little study group,” Ball said. “I will have students talk to each other and get contact information. There is accountability in study groups and I would imagine that meeting other students in the same classes makes it more fun.”
Ball also encourages students to utilize all the resources available in order to be successful in her classes. While the implications of COVID-19 disrupted consistent attendance, Ball still reaffirms that attending live lectures is one of the best ways to stay on top of class material.
Many large classes are also supported by course staff, such as teaching assistants, to assist students in absorbing content. Wagner expresses how his introductory data science course “lives on its course staff.” Having access to multiple sources of help for students has been integral in the course’s structure and delivery.
“The model is that we recruit amazing students who have taken Data 8 in the past to help us teach it,” Wagner said. “They are the ones that are able to provide a lot of individualized support and help a lot of students from different backgrounds succeed.”
Despite the aid each class provides however, it’s easy to get lost while trying to juggle so many different responsibilities, according to campus senior Mirsol Kim.
In Vashisth’s perspective, these large classes excel in organization. But, while the syllabus remains clear and the teaching methods and analogies are tailored to the course, it still remains a challenge to avoid falling behind.
“After having done smaller classes where you get interaction with people who are teaching you, I feel like taking these giant classes will go on, with or without you,” Vashisth said. “It’s like, ‘this course is happening. Keep up.’ ”
Students in large classes can also make efforts to form personal connections with their professors. Visiting a professor’s office hours is likely the best way to get to know them, according to Ball. A student wouldn’t necessarily need a question about course content — office hours are generally open for simple hello’s and meeting fellow students.
Kim describes that forming relationships with professors who teach large classes is always a good thing to pursue. However, he emphasizes that to form a genuine relationship, having honest chemistry with professors is important.
“Some people only go (to office hours) with content questions, but an actual relationship is formed outside the content. These professors are really knowledgeable and have lives outside class,” Kim said. “You can just talk to them, especially if they are in a similar field that you’re interested in.”
But, Berkeley would simply not be Berkeley without these massive courses. Despite the feelings of anxiousness that comes with being in a large class, most peers are generally supportive and willing to help, according to Vashisth.
Wagner notes the importance of maintaining one’s mental health above all, as it is easy to compare yourself to others in large classes. He added that while students may think there is something “wrong” with them if they are struggling in a class, this is not indicative of one’s self-esteem or worth.
“One lesson I have learned is don’t compare your insides to everyone else’s outside,” Wagner said. “You really have to make the most of this awesome opportunity (of being a Berkeley student) and no matter what, you are going to be OK.”