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Teaching Large Classes

front of fraser hallPaul Atchley asks an important question regarding teaching a large class: How does a teacher offer meaningful instruction in a large lecture class? Faculty members who teach large classes face other issues, as well, such as:

  • Are there ways to reduce student anonymity?
  • How can I make a large class interactive, so that it’s more than just lecture?
  • How can I encourage student writing in large classes?
  • What types of tests are feasible in large classes?

Instructors of large classes have found ways to meet some of the challenges this particular teaching situation presents.

Val Smith, KU ecology and evolutionary biology/environmental studies, offers these ideas:

“Large classes present a special teaching challenge. Making consistent eye contact while lecturing is much more difficult, except with students in the first few rows, and the likelihood of students using their laptops for instant messaging and Web surfing (rather than taking notes) is greatly enhanced. How do you keep a large classroom audience engaged and actively interested in material? My solution to this dilemma in Biology 152 reflects two key goals derived from my own early classroom experiences with Clark Bricker, who for decades excelled at teaching large sections of introductory Chemistry at KU.

“My first and most important goal is to personalize the lecture delivery: I learn the names of several key students, try to learn something about them, and then actively refer to them periodically in class. In Spring 2007, I team taught a course with Chris Haufler. I consistently sat in the same seat throughout most of the first half of the course, which was taught by my colleague. I struck up pre-class dialogs with students on either side of me and got to know them. Later, when I began my portion of the course, I often walked up to and called them by name during my lectures. For example, ‘Mike is sitting just in front of me right now taking notes. Is he thinking about breathing while he is writing? No! He doesn’t need to, because his central nervous system takes care of that automatically.’ In doing so, I tried to make the students feel like they were in a smaller, more intimate classroom setting; that each of them was not an anonymous, faceless member of a large crowd; and that I cared about them as individuals.

“My second goal is to demand active participation. Here’s an example: There’s a strong difference between the behavior of non-myelinated neurons (along which nerve impulses are conducted smoothly and without interruption, akin to an electrical current flowing through a strand of wire) versus myelinated neurons (in which nerve impulses hop from one node to another, more like a frog hopping along a rope). I first asked all the students on the ground floor of the classroom to start a continuous “wave,” beginning with students along the left-most aisle, sweeping across the classroom, and ending at the right-most aisle. I likened this smooth flow of movement to nerve impulses in non-myelinated neurons. Then, I requested that the students in the central section of the classroom remain unmoving, and requested that the students on the right-hand side of the auditorium begin their portion of the wave at the very instant that the left-hand section’s wave ended: The flow of movement jumped over the central section of students, just like a nerve impulse jumps and speeds past the sections of myelinated neurons that are covered by Schwann cells. No one leaving the classroom that day forgot the difference!”

Smith’s suggestion to personalize lecture delivery is a good starting point for reducing students’ feelings of anonymity in large classes. As McKeachie (2002) reports, social psychological research has shown that people who are anonymous feel less personal responsibility, which damages morale and order. Also, the distance students feel from an instructor and a loss of interpersonal bonds with a teacher and with other students diminishes motivation for learning. To combat these problems, see the information at right.

In a large class, it’s possible to have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss a topic or solve a problem. Tim Shaftel, KU School of Business, demonstrates using small group discussion in a large class in CTE’s video, “Opening the Classroom Door.” Other ways to involve students include in-class debates or interviews, or out-of-class study groups and online discussions.

Many faculty members hesitate to use writing assignments as part of a large lecture course. For formal papers, using rubrics is an effective way to ease the grading load; see Designing Writing Assignments. Not all assignments must be formal, graded papers, however. Bean (2011) suggests that teachers shouldn’t feel “compelled to read everything students write, which is equivalent, I would argue, to a piano teacher who listens to tapes of students’ home practice sessions … The trick is to read some of it, not all of it” (p. 99). Using short, informal writing activities such as reading logs or journals, practice essay exams, or elaborated thesis statements, will benefit students. For other ideas, contact the KU Writing Center (864-2399).

In large classes, giving exams presents unique challenges. In a class of 30 students, it takes just a few minutes to hand out exam sheets. In a class of 1,000 students, passing out exams can reduce testing time by ten minutes or more. See the information below for suggestions regarding exam logistics.

When you’re handing back graded papers, Lowman (1987) recommends asking GTAs (or student volunteers) to take stacks of alphabetized papers to different sections of the room. You can direct students to the section where their paper will be (e.g., last name A-F in the right front corner of the room).

Andrea Greenhoot offers more thoughts on using writing assignments in large classes with a large range of student skills:

“There’s quite a bit of research in my field (developmental and cognitive psychology) that suggests that learning is optimized when it’s pitched just beyond the student’s current level but also connects to some degree to their existing understanding. But how do you find this ‘sweet spot’ for student learning, and what do you do when you teach large classes and the sweet spot is different for every student? I discovered that the easiest way to work on this puzzle was to begin by looking carefully at my students’ work and then target areas of student difficulty in future offerings of my courses. Many of the course modifications that I have made over the years involved breaking down complex writing and research assignments into stages and providing support and feedback at each step. This staged approach has helped me work with students at diverse skill levels, and it also makes it very clear to me where in the process students are having difficulty so that I can target those areas in the next iteration. You can see this work in my portfolio.”

To help manage grade expectations in his large classes, Ben Eggleston used a survey to gage student ideas regarding grades; he then would discuss the survey results during the next class meeting. For examples of Eggleston's survey questions, please see his handout.

Logistics for testing in large classes

Prepare tests well in advance so you’ll have plenty of time to proofread and check for unclear wording. As Lynda Cleveland (2002) notes, “A typo discovered by one student escalates to an uproar in the mega-class. Likewise, wording that is unclear escalates to a fever pitch during the mega-class exam.”

Ask GTAs to take an exam before it’s given to students, so you can be sure students will have time to complete it within the allotted testing time.

Before the test, determine how you’ll distribute exams. Counting out papers for each row of students will consume five to ten minutes of exam time, or more if you don’t have GTA help. You may want to precount, package and label exams for the rows in your classroom (Cleveland 2002).


Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cleveland, L.G. (2002). That’s not a large class; it’s a small town: How do I manage? In C.A. Stanley & M.E. Porter (Eds.) Engaging large classes (pp. 16-27). Bolton, MA: Anker.

Lowman, J. (1987). Giving students feeeback. In M. Weimer (Ed.), New directions for teaching and learning: Teaching large classes well (pp. 71-83). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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