All It Takes Is All You Got: Teaching In 100 Thomas

Dr. Chris Marone is a professor of geosciences at Penn State with specific research interests in experimental geophysics, rock mechanics, friction and faulting, and more. When he’s not putting his Ph.D. from Columbia to work in research, you may find him teaching in 100 Thomas, the largest classroom on campus.

Marone teaches GEOSC 40, an introductory oceanography course that’s popular among students hoping to satisfy their natural science gen ed requirements without doing too much mathy sciences or sciencey maths. The class encapsulates weather, climate, the earth, and, of course, how the oceans work.

Almost every semester, the class fills up 700 seats in Thomas. But what does it take to actually teach a course like GEOSC 40?

Given that most students seem to dread the idea of taking just one public speaking class comprised of a few short speeches, the fact that Marone is teaching a class that is about half the size of Columbia’s entire class of 2022 is pretty incredible.

Part of his secret is preparation.

“I spend about three hours before class working on this class one way or another,” Marone said. “I look at my lecture notes and think about them, trying to find something new to talk about.”

Marone’s teaching experience of about 30 years certainly helps when it comes to taking on such a huge class. He says that he doubts he would’ve been able to effectively handle such an undertaking without the experience that he’s built up over the years.

However, the ability to lecture in front of 700 students isn’t just about having experience. Marone says it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching. Succeeding in such a large environment can depend on your personality and a few helpful strategies.

One trick Marone has used to command attention in 100 Thomas is to dress up a little bit more than he normally would. For crowd-control purposes, he dresses as the “archetypal” professor, wearing a blazer to almost every lecture.

Marone explained that, as part of a fundraiser a few years ago, he dressed up in a crazy outfit for a lecture. It was one of the worst days he ever had in terms of getting students to pay attention, helping him realize that appearances really do matter for a class like that.

An ability to connect with students in a classroom like that matters, too.

“If there were a class with 700 people in it, and it were harder to walk around, I bet I would like it a lot less than I do,” he said, explaining that the walkways up and down the aisles are crucial. “That room gives an opportunity to be close to people, and that’s the way students ask questions in my experience.”

As any student who’s taken a class in 100 Thomas will know, there are some drawbacks. The background noise and, perhaps, lack of attention present certain challenges when it comes to teaching 700 students, according to Marone.

He believes the feeling of anonymity in a classroom that size makes a difference compared to a class with only a handful of students. Still, he’d argue that once a classroom gets to 15 or 20 students, people are going to find ways to distract themselves.

“I used to teach [GEOSC 40] with 200 people,” he said. “There’s literally no difference between 200 people and 700 people in my mind.”

Of course, schools across the country love to brag about how small their classes are, but there are some benefits to being in such a large environment. Marone believes that professors must put extra care into planning for such a huge class, so students reap the benefits of more preparation.

He also pointed to the need to develop an ability to ask questions in a room packed full of people. Simply formulating a questions with all of the possible distractions and then having the courage to speak up in front of such a large audience can both prove useful in the future.

Now that you know what goes into holding the attention of 700 students more interested in their cellphones than lecture notes, next time you roll into 100 Thomas, maybe you’ll have more of an appreciation for what it takes to be at the bottom of that bowl teaching class. Or at least an idea why your professor is so much more dressed up in Thomas 100.

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About the Author

Derek Bannister

Derek is a senior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected].

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