Face to Face: Large Classes


Lecture hall

Large classes can be both challenging and rewarding to teach. As the instructor, you're often the center of attention and the expert in the room, which can be gratifying. Because it is often a passive experience, learning in a large class can also be difficult for students. They are provided with few opportunities to gauge their understanding during a lecture.


Active Learning in Large Classes

Lecture is the primary teaching strategy used in large classes. One effective method to address the challenges is to transform your lectures into active environments for the students. Some common techniques include:

  • Allow students to download advance notes that include significant blanks, so students have to listen intently and mentally engage the material.  These notes should be more than the PowerPoint slides you use to guide your lecture.
  • pose questions to the room throughout the class. Identify a responder at the end of the question, call on non-volunteers, or use multiple responder strategies to engage more of the students. The use of charts, diagrams, and photographs in your slide presentation may serve to prompt such questions, but the instructor should not tell the students about these, but should ask for interpretations from them. Note: The questions, themselves, should be engaging. Focus them on core content, current events, higher order thinking about concepts (keywords include: why, how, should, what is next, compare, contrast, plan, design, develop).
  • create time for students to work individually on problems projected on the screen.
  • ask students to draw a picture (or a graphic) on scratch paper of your concept, using no words but still demonstrating comprehension.
  • pause occasionally, leaving only silence in the room, for students to reflect on critical topics.
  • use "one minute papers" to ask content questions, which can be collected and used as a micro-quiz (graded or otherwise) to gauge whether students really are understanding the material. Variations include asking them to list which topic was understood the least, to see if the entire class shared the same lack of comprehension.

For maximal student engagement, allow students to interact not only with the material, but with each other. Each of the previous suggestions can be followed up with a brief discussion with a partner, or in small groups. The fixed seating of lecture halls may seem to argue against this, but it can be accomplished by forming teams from adjacent seats or by having students in a row interact with those in the row behind.

Since engagement will remain highest with variation, it is advisable to employ a shifting array of techniques. This list of interactive techniques can serve as a "toolbox" of ideas for use in making your class an active experience for your students. Many of the ideas on the list also offer suggestions for the kinds of activities students can perform in pairs and groups.

Student Response "Clickers"

Sometimes known as audience polling technology (or even just "clickers"), classroom response systems promise numerous benefits in classes, including improved student engagement, enhanced formative feedback for instructors, easy quizzing tools, even a means to take attendance. Instructors can employ the systems to gather individual responses from students or to gather anonymous feedback. Reports are typically exported to Excel for upload to the instructor's grade book. Our tutorial explains how to get started, and offers best practices for effective use of clickers: http://www.fctl.ucf.edu/TeachingAndLearningResources/Technology/CRS/

Classroom Management

Students in large classes sometimes think - erroneously - that they are less visible than they are in small classes, and it's not uncommon for a few students to be off-task, use cell phones for texting, browse the Internet, or even fall asleep. Students learn more when they are engaged in the class. They will stay engaged if there is a reason to be so. Interesting, intellectually stimulating experiences in which they are directly involved are the key.

Tips for Effective Lecturing

  • Maximize clarity and organization: announce your daily objectives on the board and make transitions between segments of your lesson explicit, or proceed with a class activity and then ask the students to provide the purpose for the activity and to list the objective(s) it supported.
  •  Do not attempt to “cover” all the material, but rather “uncover” what you can: what use is it to state out loud all the material if no one remembers it? Better to ensure students really learn a smaller chunk.
  • Create a supportive environment: memory formation occurs in the brain's limbic system, suggesting a strong link between emotion and learning.
  • Recognize different learning styles: students learn differently from each other, and our activities need to account for all these learners.
  • Teach for long-term memory: structure assignments, activities, and assessments so that short-term cramming would not help.
  • Integrate higher-level thinking skills into learning: target synthesis and evaluation skills, rather than just knowledge or even application, to guarantee a richer learning experience.
  • Promote real-world application of the learning: student learning is multiplied when they perceive relevance to the material. Often it pays to start with a real-world problem and “work backward” to the concept/formula/etc underlying it.
  • Require students to become “active learners”: lecture halls invite student anonymity and passivity, two features which work against learning. Fight both with constant and varied activities, even if it means students working alone in their chairs.
  • Be an engaging speaker, especially if your major teaching strategy is lecture. Learning rests on engagement, which requires students to pay attention. All of this is only possible when students can be convinced to pay attention to you in class.

Speak Engagingly

  • Be conversational: don’t lecture AT them, just talk WITH them. Don’t simply READ your presentation. If you can approximate the feel of a one-on-one conversation, students will pay much closer attention. 
  • Use your voice effectively: you should vary the speed, the loudness, and the tone of your voice. These variations can be used to great effect to signify important material.
  • Achieve eye contact with ALL parts of the room: consider dividing the room up into quadrants and vary where you direct your gaze. If possible, wander the aisles.
  • Come across as enthusiastic and energetic: allow your passion for the subject and for teaching to shine through (don’t be dull or routine). Albert Mehrabian's study of effective presentations found these facets important in establishing believability: verbal considerations (words you say) accounted for  7% of the reason people are liked; vocal considerations (how you sound when you say them) was 38%, and visual considerations (how you look when you say them) was 55%.
  • Gauge audience reaction and adjust accordingly: bored audiences can be brought back with voice variation and suddenly energetic presentations (see above). But you have to watch your audience to know when it’s time to shift gears. Repeat points as necessary.
  • Use boards effectively: write down important material that you want students to write in their own notes. Write legibly (not cursive) and in large font. Do not speak when facing away from the class.
  • Create pictures verbally: both visual and auditory learners benefit from a mental image, which enables you to hold attention longer. Or use real pictures.
  • Tell stories: students react particularly well to teachers who rely upon their own character and history to illustrate examples from the subject matter. Once boring material now seems relevant and accessible to them.
  • Tailor your style to appeal to this specific audience: undergraduates often react more enthusiastically to word problems or examples that use mass culture and pop culture references. Also, pack in as many similes, metaphors, and analogies as you can.
  • Demand involvement from students in their seats; problem-solving or brainstorming can occur individually. If possible, build the PowerPoint presentation AROUND these problems rather than vice-versa.

Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Slide presentation software such as PowerPoint has become an ingrained part of many instructional settings, particularly in large classes and in courses more geared toward information exchange than skill development. PowerPoint can be a highly effective tool to aid learning, but if not used carefully, may instead disengage students and actually hinder learning. Our suggestions for effective PowerPoint presentations include best practices, delivery ideas, and sample presentations.

Writing in Large Classes

Assigned writing is beneficial for students even in large classes, and the assignment need not represent an undue grading burden on instructors. Consider requiring several short, focused assignments, some low-stakes writing or informal writing that can be graded extremely quickly; this can be especially valuable if assigned often in the semester.

High stakes writing, such as essays or project reports, can also be assigned and graded easily even in large classes. Be very specific in the writing prompt about what is expected and how it will be graded, to keep student questions to a minimum. It may also help to offer examples and models. It is highly advisable to use a grading rubric to ensure fairness in the grades and to streamline the grading process dramatically, saving many hours of work for the instructor. This rubric should be shared with students in the essay prompt, as this will properly set expectations.

Further Reading

This annotated bibliography lists several important works about teaching large classes, and provides guidance for which volumes are appropriate to your needs.


Web Resources for Teaching Large Classes

Teaching Tips Index: Faculty Development
Honolulu Community College
Tips for dealing with stress, dealing with difficult behaviors, motivating students, organization, assessment, and more.

Tips for Teaching Large Classes Online
Faculty Focus
This article provides tips on teaching large online courses including how to use the textbook, announcements, and helping to teach students to be successful.

Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Managing Large Lecture Courses
Faculty Focus
This article provides tips on teaching large lecture courses including starting strict and ending more lenient, putting everything in writing, and consistency.

Teaching Large Classes: AUTC Project
Australian Universities Teaching Committee
This site lists guidelines, case studies, project results, and article resources.

Bowling Green State University
Center for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Large Classes
This site lists web, book and article resources.

Carleton College: On the Cutting Edge
Early Career Geoscience Faculty: Teaching, Research, and Managing Your Career: Teaching Large Classes
This offers some concise ideas for keeping students engaged, making technology work for you, and getting groups to work well in cooperative learning.

The Chicago handbook for teachers: A practical guide to the college classroom, by Alan Brinkley, Betty Dessants, Michael Flamm, Cynthia Fleming, Charles Forcey, and Eric Rothschild.
Chapter 10: Using Electronic Resources for Teaching
Five promising uses of new technology
The necessary tools
The course homepage
Electronic sources
Electronic publishing of student work
Multimedia lecturing
Electronic discussions

McMaster University: Problem-Based Learning, especially in the context of large classes.
This resource discusses the nature of problem-based learning and how it is used in McMaster’s chemical engineering program. They list books for teachers as well as for students on getting the most out of this style of learning.

North Carolina State University
Beating the numbers game: Effective teaching in large classes by Richard M. Felder, 1997.
In-class, out-of-class, and miscellaneous ideas.
“Teaching a large class effectively is hard work, but it's possible to do it even if you're not a big-league entertainer. If you make the necessary logistical arrangements far enough in advance, provide plenty of active learning experiences in the classroom instead of relying on straight lecturing, and take full advantage of the power of teams in both in-class and out-of-class work, large classes can come close to being as educationally rewarding as small classes. The instructor's satisfaction may be even greater in the large classes: after all, many professors can teach 15 students effectively, but when you do it with 100 or more you know you've really accomplished something.”

Pennsylvania State University
Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence: Teaching Large Classes
This site offers a selection of PDFs on frequently asked questions and large class resources.

University of California, Berkeley: Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course
This is a book chapter from Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis, 1993, complete with references.
            General Strategies
            Organizing the Course
            Preparing Lecture Notes
            Structuring a Lecture
            Managing a Large Lecture Course
            Sample Lecture Outline

University of Iowa: Information Technology Services
General Teaching in a Large Lecture Classroom
This site lists university resources as well as general questions and solutions for large class instruction such as:
            How can I help my teaching assistants become for efficient and effective?
How can I engage my students in active learning?
How can I personalize the learning environment?
How does peer instruction work?
How can I encourage my students to participate in class discussion?
How do I get students to attend class?
How do I provide feedback on so many assignments?
What if there are students who need more attention than the average student?

University of California, Santa Cruz: Center for Teaching & Learning
Resources for Teaching Large Classes
This site lists university resources and online resources, as well as helpful books.
How can I encourage interaction in a large class?
How can I keep the attention of so many students during lectures?
How can I encourage active learning?
How can I provide meaningful feedback on assignments?
What kinds of exams can I give? 
Should I require attendance in lecture or sections?
How can I manage the paperwork, individual questions, and inevitable problems that arise in any class, on such a large scale?
What is the best role for my TAs?
What kind of instructional technology should I use?

University of Maryland: Center for Teaching Excellence
Teaching Large Classes: A Teaching Guide
Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Approaching the Teaching of Large Classes
3. Establishing Ground Rules
4. Personalizing the Large Class
5. Lecturing
6. Discussions
7. Collaborative/Cooperative Learning
8. Writing in Lectures
9. Giving Students Feedback
10. Improving Teaching through Student Feedback
11. Involving TAs
A. Seven Principles of Good Teaching
B. One-Minute Paper
C. Mid-Point Student Feedback Form

Also see Class Discussions http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/diversity/methods/methodsclassdiscussions.html
       And Assessment

San Francisco State University: Office of Faculty Affairs and Professional Development
Top Ten Tips for Teaching Large Classes and Lectures
Top 10 tips and list of additional resources.

University of Wisconsin-Stout: Nakatani Teaching and Learning Center
Resources for Teaching Large Classes
A bibliography and list of web resources.


Faculty Spotlight View Other Award Winners

Rudy McDaniel
College of Arts and Humanities Rudy McDaniel Father Guido Sarducci, a character famously portrayed by comedian Don Novello in the Saturday Night Live sketch The Five Minute University, makes the claim that the average college graduate remembers only five minutes worth of material five years after graduation. Rather than really learning, he says, these stude...

Martha Garcia
College of Arts and Humanities Martha   Garcia I believe in applying teacher-student collaboration through instruction, research, and service. My teaching and learning practice incorporates concepts and premises that I help learners apply pragmatically. I also believe my teaching functions in conjunction with the values of the institution I serve. In t...

Honghui Chen
College of Business Administration Honghui   Chen I believe that a professor must create knowledge and effectively disseminate that knowledge to students. I strive for excellence in research and carry my enthusiasm for research excellence into my teaching. I pursue teaching excellence by setting high expectations for my students, providing rigorous and up-to-date...