Teaching in Large Classes
“Large classes are not a challenge. I’m not convinced by the standard list of problems – that we have a large number of students, that our students are lazy. I don’t buy into those. Our biggest problem is the question of relevance.”David Carter
For many students registering for a large class is like ordering cheap pizza. It is simply an obligatory part of being a university student. Circumstances dictate the reality of being on the receiving end of this unfortunate situation. Fortunately, seasoned instructors and educational researchers have successfully tried and tested a swath of helpful strategies to aid those attempting to teach in a large class.
What is a Large Class?
There is no clear consensus on a precise number or the definition of a large class. The term is subjective and has more to do with what is perceived as ‘normal’ by any given individual. Nevertheless, numbers in excess of 60 students begin to take any instructor into territory that offers unique challenges. These may include marking and recording mountains of tests and other assignments, dealing with distractions such as late arrivals and the chatty types in the back, trying to learn names, trying to keep students accountable, and attempting to recognize the diverse backgrounds and levels of preparation among students.
Why Don’t Students Participate in Large Classes?
In a university environment where students are already vulnerable to isolation and anonymity, large lecture halls full of serious-looking strangers have the potential to contribute to these feelings of anonymity.
Beyond this, there a number of reasons why students tend to shut down and not participate in large classes. These reasons include their perception of authority, their perception of the instructor, and their fears of peer judgment (Weaver & Jiang, 2005). Such fears and perceptions are important to keep in mind when you are trying to establish an engaging and comfortable tone in your lecture hall. The following section offers specific advice for common concerns and questions for the lecturer of a large class. For more on strategies to develop engaging lectures, see Dynamic Lectures.
Strategies Addressing Common Concerns
How Can I Encourage Attendance In My Large Classes?
- Make the class informative, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives.
- Add variety/entertainment to lectures (animations, slide shows, demos, video clips, music, guest speakers, etc.).
- Put outlines up on your course Web page, so that students know what to expect and can use them as a guide for taking notes and not as a substitute for attending class.
- Use lots of supplemental illustrations/examples that students cannot get any other place other than in class. Give lots of exam-directed problems in class.
- Count class participation toward the final grade.
- Give students a topic to think about for the next class discussion or a puzzle to solve for fun or for credit.
- Give regular announced quizzes that count towards the final grade. They can be given at the beginning of class and to get feedback on assigned reading or at the end to test comprehension of material just covered
- Give more scheduled exams covering less material.
- Weekly in-class assignments that can be done in 20-30 minutes that gives students the chance to apply what they have learned. Students can work individually or in pairs.
- Give students credit for completing assignments, but don’t grade them. Collect homework assignments, and give students credit for handing it in. You do not have to do this every day to encourage attendance and you can reduce your workload by collecting a subset from different students each day.
- Convince students that exam success depends on attendance. One faculty member gathered data from previous classes to prove it and presented these data to his students.
- Establish a policy that grades will be lowered according to the number of sessions missed (grading for participation).
How Can I Reduce The Feeling Of Student Anonymity?
Know the names of at least some of your students:
- Use a camera or phone to take pictures of groups of students in their class
- Ask students to supply them with a copy of their ID pictures
- Create a seating chart to enable rapid taking of attendance and identification of students
- Return exams personally to associate names with faces and encourage students who are struggling.
- Before class, learn the names of people sitting along the aisles and call on them during the class
- Ask students to wear nametags so that can call on them by name.
- When giving a test, ask the students to hang a sheet of paper with their names in large letters in front of them and you can wander around the room learning names
- When handing back the tests, go to the labs or discussion sections with the papers and hand each back individually with an appointment book to invite students with scores of D or less to make an appointment, and any others who look disappointed or concerned
Create a more personal environment by letting students “know” you in appropriate ways –
- Your interests
- How you first encountered a concept
- How you used course-related materials in problem-solving
Try to find ways to be accessible to students on a personal level.
- Arrive early and chat with students who are already there
- Greet students as they come in.
- Stay a few minutes after class to answer individual questions
- Give students your email address and encourage them to send questions or comments in this way.
- Pass out invitations to 10 students to join you for coffee after class to get acquainted. Announce that you’ll meet any students who are free for coffee after class (you won’t be swamped).
- Consider lecturing or leading discussion from different points of the classroom to give students the feeling of being in the midst of the action rather than simply being an observer. Standing behind a podium emphasizes the distance between you and the class. Moving into the aisles and around the room makes the class seem smaller and encourages student involvement.
- Provide many avenues for feedback from students to check for understanding:
- Ask students at intervals to write down the “muddiest” part of your lecture, and then use some of the next class or handouts to clarify the material.
- Pass out observation forms to 10 students at the beginning of class and ask them to meet with you and discuss their observations about what works and what doesn’t. This is especially helpful when you want feedback before student evaluations at the end of the course.
How Can I Better Manage The Class Climate?
- Start on the first day of class:
- Arrive at your classroom early with plenty of time to set up the room the way you want it. Have the all materials you need and a detailed lesson plan
- Make certain that all contact information is on the board and in the syllabus that you provide on the first day.
- Greet students, smile and start class on time. Introduce yourself and tell them something interesting about yourself like your research interests, what got you interested in this subject in the first place (be personable).
- Make sure to cover their responsibilities and your responsibilities, including policies that you have set for attendance, make-up work, behaviour in class, group work, etc.
- When you cover an important concept, do not ask “Any questions?” Instead, say “O.K., someone up in the last two rows, ask me a question about this concept.” This tells your class you want questions.
- Create a comfortable climate without letting the students run over you
- Give feedback to students, especially when correcting a wrong answer or statement
- Help the class feel comfortable with asking you questions
- Be sure your questions are good ones.
- Handle the class “disrupters” immediately: go to them outside of class and discuss how their behaviour is affecting the other students and you.
Source: Ives, S. M. (2000). A Survival Handbook for Teaching Large Classes. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Retrieved from: http://teaching.uncc.edu/services-programs/teaching-guides/lecture-studio-and-large-classes/teaching-large-classes
The goal of these activities is to provide students with the opportunity to get to know one another. These activities are intended for groups of 2-4 people, and each one lasts approximately 5-10 minutes. When introducing these activities, tell students why you are using the activity. Consider using these activities throughout the term (i.e., not just in the first week of class). Note that some students might feel uncomfortable participating in interpersonal activities, especially icebreakers that are not tied to course content. It’s best not to force students to participate; rather, allow them to opt out and learn by observing.
Cell Sharing: In a small group, each student shares a photo, song, or video from their mobile device that they think best represents them. Each person has a chance to talk about their selection and why they chose it.
Virtual Introductions: Set up a discussion forum where students introduce themselves. This can be completely open-ended or structured (e.g., Introduce yourself by stating your name, your major, what year you are in, where you are from/where you live now, what you want to do after university). Instructors can then use this information to group students into similar groups or dissimilar groups and/or refer to students’ future occupations as they make connections between course content and professional applications of the material.
Texting Interviews: Randomly pair students (can be done either face-to-face or virtually). Ask each student to develop 3-5 questions that they would want to ask others to help them get to know someone better. The pairs then text their questions and answers back and forth using a discussion forum that has been set up prior to the class. Interviewers summarize what they found out about their partners and post their partners’ names and this information in a class-wide discussion forum.
Common Ground: In groups of two, students have 1 minute to find 6 things they have in common. They then pair with another group of 2 and then the group of four has 2 minutes to find 6 things that they all have in common.
Sharing Trepidations: This can be done in small groups, online, or anonymously via the learning management system or a polling tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere). Follow this with a discussion of students’ most significant concerns or fears.
These activities are meant to foster a positive class climate and engage students in the class community. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.
Syllabus Icebreaker: In small groups, students identify outstanding questions or complete a syllabus quiz. An alternative would be to give an “assignment icebreaker” where students work in groups to discuss and identify questions regarding assignment instructions.
Class Expectations: In groups of 2-4, students identify up to 6 ground rules for the use of technology in class (discuss pros and cons and etiquette). Instructors follow up by summarizing and discussing the expectations with students.
Collaborative Start, Stop, Continue: Students work in pairs or small groups to provide their thoughts about what they’d like their instructor to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in class. The groups then submit their responses to an online bulletin board. Instructors follow up by summarizing the results and discussing what will change/not change, and why.
Interview the Instructor: Students work in groups to develop questions for the instructor. Questions should pertain to the instructor’s professional life.
Twitter Scavenger Hunt: Students in the course work in pairs to tweet the responses to ten questions. The questions are provided at the start of class and the students have the class period to complete the assignment, either in the class or outside of class. This assignment should be linked to course or class learning outcomes.
These activities aim to actively engage students with the course material. These activities can also be used to promote student-to-student interactions when students are asked to work on the activity in small groups. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.
The Alphabet Game: Students think of a discipline-specific concept/theory that starts with the letter A, the letter B, etc. until they reach they end of the alphabet (e.g., “What Do Sociologists Study?”). A variation would be to see how far down the alphabet the groups can get in 5 minutes. The instructor follows up with the large class. (Eggleston & Smith)
Collaborative Response: The instructor poses a question to the class and invites responses by a show of hands or via an online immediate response tool (e.g., Clickers, Polleverywhere). After providing their individual response students discuss the question in small groups. Each small group develops a group response which is then shared or submitted along with all individual responses.
Thought Provoking Questions: The instructor poses a thought-provoking, “yes or no” debatable question to which students respond individually and then discuss in groups of 2-4 (e.g., Food banks should be discontinued because they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.) The instructor follows up with a large group discussion. This can also be done in the large class with immediate response tools (e.g., Clickers, Polleverywhere).
Using Popular Music to teach course concepts or themes: Music can be used in a variety of ways to encourage interaction and engage students in the course. One idea is to play energizing, popular music as students enter the classroom to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere, focus students’ attention to the course, stimulate conversation, and increase the instructor’s social presence. Increase the relevance of this activity by selecting a popular song that expresses the topic of the lecture and have small groups discuss the song’s relevance. As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs. Another idea is to use “Classroom Karaoke”: In Classroom Karaoke the instructor shows song lyrics on screen while playing the instrumental sound track and invites students to sing along or just follow along with the words (Baker, 2012). As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs.
Two-Stage Testing. IF-AT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) Cards: IF-AT cards are unique pre-designed cards that function like multiple choice questions, yet instead of indicating an answer by circling a letter, a learner can actually scratch the card to reveal what they think is the correct answer. Students begin by answering the list of questions on their own without use of IF-AT cards. Afterwards, students work with a group to go through the questions, convince one another of the correct answer, and then scratch the card to discover what is right. Ideally used to provide immediate feedback to students about concepts tested outside of the class. IF-AT cards can be used as diagnostic quiz at start of term, can be used as a unit test. CTE will provide IF-AT cards to instructors for a one-time trial (i.e., for one term).
Collaborative Concept Maps: Done either individually and shared, or created collaboratively from the start, a concept map can reinforce concepts learned out of class and build connections between various topics. Students map out how concepts, ideas or theories are thematically related in a visual manner. Any gaps can be useful inspiration for discussions either on a group of class level.
Find, Post & Vote: First, student groups find images from the media (e.g., advertisements, news headlines, TV shows, movies, newspapers, etc.) that portray the concept/topic being studied. Next, each group posts their image to a sharing site. Finally, the instructor and TAs create a selection of the top 10 images and the class votes for the winners and have a class discussion on why the winners were the top picks. The top selections can be displayed for the class on an online bulletin board.
Think-Pair-Share: Students take a central concept presented in the out of class material, or a particularly controversial quiz question from the prior assessment, and reflect on it individually before discussing it with a neighbour. Think phase: students work independently and flesh out their thoughts/arguments and may write their thoughts down. Pair phase: students discuss their response with a partner. Share phase: elicit responses from members of the class and begin to engage your students in a wider discussion demonstrating the many different perspectives. Note that in large classes, there might only be time for a sample of groups to share with the large class.
Inkshedding: Give students up to 3 minutes to write their thoughts about a thought-provoking question on a piece of paper (students are instructed to put their name on the paper). After 3 minutes, students pass their paper to the person next to them. The receiver adds comments on what was written and/or adds to it. Repeat this process two more times with the last round returning the paper to its original author.
Resources and References
Brown, R.E. (2001). The process of community-building in distance learning classes. JALN, 5(2), 18-35.
Carbone, E. (1999). Students behaving badly in large classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 77, 35-43.
Carbone, E. (1998). Teaching large classes: Tools and strategies. Survival Skills for Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Felder, R. (n.d.) Beating the numbers game: Effective teaching in large classes (Session 1213) Retrieved May 5, 2006, from https://peer.asee.org/beating-the-numbers-game-effective-teaching-in-large-classes.pdf
Kangas Dwyer, K., et al., (2004). Communication and connectedness in the classroom: Development of the connected classroom climate inventory. Communication Research Reports, 21(3), 264-272.
McKeachie, W. (1994). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company.
McKinney, K., & Graham-Buxton, M. (1993). The use of collaborative learning groups in the large class: Is it possible? Teaching Sociology, 21 (4).
Moore, M. G. (1989). Editorial: Three Types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
Sawyer, J.K., et al., (2009). To get-to-know-you or not to get-to-know-you: A two phase study of initial engagement activities. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(2), 187-196.
Stanley, C., & Porter, M. E. (2002). Engaging large classes: Strategies and techniques for college faculty. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.
Terrion, J.L. (Jan. 23, 2014). Re-envisioning the large class. TEDx talk. University of Ottawa. Ottawa, ON.
‘A Survival Handbook for Teaching Large Classes, The Center for Teaching and Learning, UNC Charlotte
Teaching Strategies: Large Classes and Lectures, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
Trees, A.R., & Jackson, M.H. (2007). The learning environment in clicker classrooms: student processes of learning and involvement in university-level courses using student response systems. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(1), 21-40.
Weaver, R. R., and Qi, Jiang (2005). Classroom organization and participation: College students’ perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 76 (5), 570-601.
Wilcox, P., et al., (2005). ‘It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’: the role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707-722.
Wilsman, A. (2016). Teaching large classes (2016). Vanderbilt University. Nashville, TN.
Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource
- Log on to UM Learn
- Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
- Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
- Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > 20 Minute Mentors
- In the search box, type in “large classes”