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Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning Teaching Large Classes

In-Class Learning

Richard Felder tells us large classes can be almost as effective as small classes. “Without turning yourself inside out, you can get students actively involved, help them develop a sense of community, and give frequent homework assignments without killing yourself (or your teaching assistants) with impossible grading loads.” See Felder’s Beating the Numbers Game: Effective Teaching in Large Classes.

Research suggests that students can stay focused on lectures for no more than 15-20 minutes at a time. You can keep students engaged and enhance learning in large classrooms by interspersing activities such as “change-up” techniques, clickers, and structured discussion.

Lecturing in Large Classes

Creating Rapport within Your Large Class

In extremely large classes, creating a sense of community may seem impossible. At a certain point, the students may seem to be a sea of faces-one, large amorphous crowd out of which a few familiar faces emerge. In such a circumstance, how can we encourage questions? Or even know if students would ask questions if they have them?

There are several approaches to this issue.

  • In a visit to the University of Idaho campus in 2007, Diane O’Dowd talked about her Biology classes of over 400 students. In these classes, O’Dowd says she lectured seldom, but had students do many in-class activities. For these, she established groups of five (three students on one row, two on another so that students could easily see each other to collaborate). These groups were permanent throughout the semester. When students were asked to work with each other, their groups were always handy. This approach also works well if you’re going to use assigned seating for attendance (see Classroom Management). In using this approach students have a smaller community in a much larger one and are more likely to have a community within the large class.
  • How the instructor sets the tone of the class is also important. Check out Tips for Using Questions in Large Classes by Daniel J. Klionsky from University of California, Davis, for some tried and true methods.

Classroom Discussions

Using Classroom Response Systems (“Clickers”) in the Classroom

Classroom Assessment Techniques for Quick Feedback

Feedback that instructors collect during the semester can help them make adjustments to the course (also called formative assessment). Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) collect short, informal information from students that give instructors a snapshot of the class. Information could be about comprehension of material, student reaction to activities, or other class associated experiences. See FAQs about CATs from the University of Southern California.

Minute Paper: One basic CAT asks students at the end of a class period to jot on a sheet of paper a) the main point of the period (or what was most interesting); b) the muddiest point of the period; and c) a question they have.
Note: Students do not write their name on the paper, but turn it in before they leave class.

  • In large classes, instructors need only read a random sampling of 25 or so CAT responses to get a good snapshot of student experiences. (Be sure to mix up responses from back and front rows.)
  • Manage student expectations by letting them know that you will not be responding to their written CAT questions; also, if someone needs to contact you, they should follow the instructions on your syllabus (and not write you personal notes).
  • At the next class, mention something you learned or changed or are thinking about, based on the students’ CAT. This builds your credibility.

University of Texas’s Table of Easy to Use CATs lists a variety of CATs, how to administer them, and what kind of information may be revealed.

Please Note: We offer a selection of resources, so that instructors can find a specific technique they might like to implement or refine, something that suits their course, context, and teaching style. Most instructors prefer to focus on one or two areas to change, rather than trying to implement many changes at the same time. We recommend that instructors pilot new activities in a low stakes context, especially if they involve a new technology – minimize the points and grading burden as you smooth out the wrinkles.

Some of your best resources are other instructors; have conversations with them about how they are addressing the challenges you face or the questions you have.