Teaching Large Classes
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Offering meaningful instruction in a large class can be challenging. Large classes are often labeled "lecture," but students miss out on crucial learning opportunities if all an instructor does is lecture. So creating opportunities for meaningful instruction in large classes requires faculty members to seek answers to some questions:
- How can I 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 assessments are feasible in large classes?
- What type of assistance do I need in a large class if I want to move beyond a passive approach to teaching?
Large Classes More Info
The first challenge in a large class is often the size of the room. 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) increases. How do you keep a large classroom audience engaged and actively interested in material?
Deb Smith, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, sets two primary goals when she teaches large classes, drawing on her early classroom experiences with Clark Bricker, who for decades taught 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," Smith says.
When she taught with a colleague one spring, "I consistently sat in the same seat throughout most of the first half of the course. 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. 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.
Smith’s suggestion to personalize lecture delivery is a good starting point for reducing students’ feelings of anonymity in large classes. As McKeachie (2002) writes, 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.
Our page on using technology contains information on incorporating technology into large classes, but we also want to stress the importance of varying your presentation of material. As Laurie A. Jaeger and Deborah Kochevar of Texas A&M University explain, it is crucial to “avoid monotony with your teaching media … students often, paradoxically, become disengaged from the material while attempting to write down volumes of information about it."
You may find it more effective to illustrate a concept using more than one form of media, they say. For instance, show a cartoon or a diagram and then a photograph, and conduct a short discussion. "The movement among media keeps the classroom alive and provides various means by which students can understand a particular concept,” Jaeger and Kochevar say (183).
Another way to keep the large class active is to have students work in pairs or small groups to discuss a topic or solve a problem. KU faculty members Susan Williams and Reva Friedman provide helpful strategies for teaching problem solving in this Two-Minute Mentor video.
In-class debates or interviews, or out-of-class study groups and online discussions are also good ways to engage students in large classes. Larry K. Michaelsen, Professor Emeritus of Management at Oklahoma, says that team learning can "change the social fabric of the learning environment.” With group work, a large class resembles a small class, "even though there may be several hundred students in the same room,” Michaelsen says. Students also “have many opportunities to interact with each other and the instructor, are explicitly accountable for being prepared for and attending class, and are motivated to do their part in completing the group assignments” (68-69).
Many KU instructors have found that undergraduate teaching assistants play an important role in making a large class seem smaller. TAs can help monitor small group discussion as they move around a classroom, answering questions and clarifying misconceptions. They can also provide feedback to the instructor. This information sheet (pdf) provides suggestions for how to best make use of TAs in large classes.
Many faculty members hesitate to use writing assignments as part of a large lecture course because of the amount of grading involved. For formal papers, rubrics can help ease the grading load. 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” (99). Using short, informal writing activities such as reading logs or journals, practice essay exams, or elaborated thesis statements, will benefit students who need the opportunity to explore ideas actively. For other writing activities, check out the KU Writing Center.
CTE Director Andrea Greenhoot offers more thoughts on using writing assignments in large classes with a wide 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, KU Professor of Philosophy, uses a survey to gauge student ideas about grades. He then discusses the survey results in class. This handout provides examples (.docx) of Eggleston's survey questions.
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.” To reduce these risks, 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 pre-count, package, and label exams for the rows in your classroom (Cleveland 2002). Whether you’re handing out exams or returning graded assignments, 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).
Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Campbell, T. Eleven very basic tips for teaching large business classes. In C.A. Stanley & M.E. Porter (Eds.) Engaging large classes (pp. 167-). Bolton, MA: Anker.
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.
Jaeger, L.A and Kochevar, D. Teaching large classes in veterinary medicine. In C.A. Stanley & M.E. Porter (Eds.) Engaging large classes (pp. 178-185). Bolton, MA: Anker.
Lowman, J. (1987). Giving students feedback. 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.
Michaelsen, L.K. Team learning in large classes. In C.A. Stanley & M.E. Porter (Eds.) Engaging large classes (pp. 67-83). Bolton, MA: Anker.