TEACHING LARGE CLASSES
Paul Atchley, former KU psychology professor and current Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the University of South Florida, 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?
By browsing the information on this page, you will find responses to each of these questions. Although every class has its own interpersonal dynamic, at CTE we understand and appreciate that teaching classes with large enrollment numbers can provide particular challenges. We hope this webpage helps you to confront those challenges with confidence.
As Dr. Smith of the KU Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department explains, “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. 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) 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.
Technology and Media
Our page on using technology contains information regarding incorporating technology specifically into large classes, but we want to stress the importance of varying your presentation material here as well. As Laurie A. Jaeger and Deborah Kochevar of Texas A&M University explain, it’s 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 particular concept using more than one form of media; e.g., show an over-head cartoon or diagram and then project a photographic slide, and conduct some short discussion about the topic. The movement among media keeps the classroom alive and provides various means by which students can understand a particular concept” (183).
Large Classes, Small Groups
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.
Other ways to involve students include in-class debates or interviews, or out-of-class study groups and online discussions. As University of Oklahoma Professor Emeritus of Management Larry K. Michaelsen explains, “team-learning uses in-class, content-focused group work to change the social fabric of the learning environment.” According to Michaelsen, large classes and small classes don’t function much differently when the class is dedicated to group work: “the interaction patterns resemble a small class even though there may be several hundred students in the same room.” With this pattern, “students 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 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. 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 ideas related to writing activities, check out the KU Writing Center (writing.ku.edu).
CTE’s Director, 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, KU professor of philosophy, used a survey to guage 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
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.