Instructors struggle daily with large classes. Massive enrollments allow for a range of student diversity (race, class, gender, educational level) and expectations that instructors struggle responding to comprehensively. Significant logistical planning and careful coordination with Teaching Fellows (TFs) is usually necessary to even ensure a functional course with large enrollments. As a result, many instructors use large lectures to present material broadly. Research suggests, though, that lecture blended with active-learning elements and/or flipped components can significantly strengthen student performance (Knight, et. al, 2005, and Freeman et al 2014).
Proven strategies include think-pair-share and clicker questions (Mayer, et. al, 2008, and Smith, et. al, 2009), and instructors can explore a huge variety of other strategies available for active learning and effective lecturing. Collecting student feedback from midterm evaluations and performing broad formative assessments can inform instructors about major class issues and individual struggles. Most effective strategies for large classes follow one rule: engaging students in smaller groups where peers can grapple with deeper conceptual understanding, pause to think critically about ideas, and raise questions and concerns (Cooper, et. al, 2000).
Instructors across disciplines have written about their successful strategies for engaging large class sizes:
- A general chemistry class with over 200 students uses a peer-led team learning (PLTL) approach to execute active-learning activities during class time. The PLTL approach invites back students who have successfully completed the course, been trained in pedagogical knowledge regarding cooperative learning, and return to work with students currently enrolled in the course. A report includes details about the creation of videos for flipped instruction, class structure, and the recruitment and training of peer leaders, as well as the benefits of the PLTL model (Robert, et. al, 2016).
- A history instructor does not want to provide his PowerPoint presentation to students because he worries that students will skip class. Instead, he posts a skeletal version of the PowerPoint introducing the content. Students must fill in the details by attending lecture. A report expands on the benefits of this strategy for “cue[ing]-up prior knowledge” in lecture (Hodges, 2016).
- A biology instructor flips her course to prioritize cooperative problem solving during class time, including frequent in-class assessment of understanding. A report shows how well-organized group activities in a biology class confer an advantage to less prepared student populations and can result in increased learning gains (Knight, et. al, 2005).
These and other strategies can be found in Carbone (1998) and Stanley, et. al (2002).
- Engage students during class - To combat passivity in large lectures, instructors may incorporate active learning strategies such as think-pair-share discussions or clicker questions, or effective lecturing techniques, to give students opportunities to reflect and respond to information.
- Avoid student alienation - Students can go silent or ignored all term in a large class. Instructors can build community and address diversity by using active learning techniques that reorganize students into smaller groups. Instructors can also consider inclusive teaching practices such as fostering an inclusive class climate, e.g. by including a diversity statement in the syllabus.
- Combat negative student perceptions - Students may see large lectures as an opportunity for an easy credit requiring minimal effort. Instructors can help their learners appreciate the value of participating fully in class by explaining their teaching philosophy, rationales for assignments, and learning goals of each class through initial class activities and a well-organized syllabus.
- Structure lectures clearly - A lecturer can use the principles of Backward Design to build lectures, and review other tips for effective lectures.
- Prepare teaching fellows to lead lectures - Section leader TFs should have a clear plan for making the most of their time with students. Instructors can acquaint TFs with CTL resources for graduate students.
- Help novice learners consider their learning - In addition to making explicit recommendations for how students might best study for the course, instructors can provide extra ungraded formative assessment opportunities for students who feel uncomfortable with the material. Research shows that students who engage in metacognition (thinking about their learning) perform with greater motivation, commit to better study habits, and more quickly grasp deeper conceptual understanding.
- Avoid overburdensome grading - Instructors might replace some graded assignments with ungraded assessments using peer review or online programs to provide feedback. Instructors might also assign group projects to reduce the number of overall projects, or consider an individual/project based assessment through team-based learning.
- Standardize grading - Instructors can give their TFs specific rubrics to use while grading to ensure fairness in grading across sections.
- Request group visits to office hours - Instructors can encourage more students to visit while reducing total time spent in office hours by explicitly encouraging groups to sign-up. Instructors can consider clumping student visits by similar errors made in assessments, similar research projects, or to build community among students.
Carbone, EL. (1998). Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications.
Cooper, JL, Robinson P. (2000). The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 81: 5-16.
Freeman S, et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 111(23): 8410-8415.
Hodges, L. (2016). Three Common Demands from Students in Large Classes and What to Do About Them. The National Teaching and Learning Forum 25.5: 1-4.
Knight JK, Wood WB. (2005). Teaching More by Lecturing Less. Chudler E, ed. Cell Biology Education. 4(4):298-310. doi:10.1187/05-06-0082.
Mayer RE, Stull A, DeLeeuw K, et al. (2008). Clickers in college classrooms: Fostering learning with questioning methods in large lecture classes. Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2008.04.002
Robert J, Lewis SE, Oueini R, and Mapugay A. (2016). Coordinated Implementation and Evaluation of Flipped Classes and Peer-Led Team Learning in General Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education. 93(12): 1993-1998. doi: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.6b00395
Smith M, Wood WB, Adams WK, et al. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science. 323(5910): 122-124. doi: 10.1126/science.1165919
Stanley CA, Porter ME. (2002). Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Boston: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.