Small/Seminar Classes


Students in classTeaching small classes is frequently coveted as an optimal university-level experience, when faculty feel they have the time to dedicate significant attention to each student, and students feel they have adequate access to the instructor. Classroom instruction is more likely to be discussion-based, with more time given over to students.

Active Learning in Small Classes

Some common techniques include:

  • if lecturing, provide advance notes available to download that include significant blanks, so students have to listen intently and mentally engage the material
  • pose constant questions to the room rather than provide answers (note: you may find that only the same group of students are willing to speak up). The use of charts, diagrams, and photographs in your slide presentation may serve to prompt such questions, but the instructor should try to remember not to immediately launch into an explanation
  • create time for students to work individually on problems projected on the screen
  • ask students to draw a picture 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. Some small classrooms make use of desk-chair combinations that can be re-arranged at will, which can encourage groupwork or even a circular formation for plenary discussions.

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:

Classroom Management

Students in small classes usually recognize that they can be seen easily by the instructor, and yet a few students may be off-task, use cell phones for texting, browse the Internet, or even fall asleep. In many small classrooms, instructors challenge students who appear to be off-task. The preferred method to keep students engaged is to offer interesting, intellectually stimulating material, and to involve students as actively as possible in the session.

Community and Student Names

It's often easy to engenger a feeling of community in small classes, and with some effort, instructors can learn all of the students' names. The personal connection with the students is advisable because it generates a feeling of accountability among students and it enables an emotional relationship to the material and to the instructor that is conducive to learning.

Tips for Effective Lecturing

  • Maximize clarity and organization: announce your daily objectives on the board and make transitions between segments of your lesson explicit.
  •  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.
  • Use a variety of authentic assessments: measure student learning in a way that is true to the nature of the material. Is a test or essay really appropriate to this material?
  • 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 you only lecture: learning rests on engagement, which requires 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.

Discussion-Based Instruction

Small classes permit significant discussion among students, or between the students and the instructor. Crafting interesting and compelling discussion questions becomes a major component of an instructor's job in such classes. In general, try to pose problems and question your students constantly: ask about facts, interpretations, processes, applications, critique, comparisons, and evaluations. You may find that controversy also works well to provoke discussion.

Writing in Small Classes

Assigned writing can be beneficial in small classes, and the assignment need not represent an undue grading burden on instructors. Consider requiring 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 in small 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.


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Ken Teter
College of Medicine Ken  Teter Engagement is the key to education. In the classroom, I engage my students by establishing a dialogue with them. Instead of simply reciting information, I ask questions. Why is the CDC in Atlanta? Students are surprised to learn that the original goal of the CDC was to eliminate malaria from the southern United St...

Karen Verkler
College of Education Karen Verkler Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) I have been an educator in several different disciplines. How...

Honghui Chen
College of Business Administration Honghui  Chen I believe that a professor must create knowledge and effectively disseminate that knowledge to students. I carry my enthusiasm for research excellence to my teaching. I pursue teaching excellence by setting high expectations of students, giving rigorous and up-to-date course material, showing my genuine care about...