Teaching large classes
We have collected resources, tips and strategies to help you be successful when teaching a large class.
For many students, particularly first-year students, taking a large class or two is simply part of the university experience. While some students may enjoy the anonymity of large classes, others may find it isolating. This is no different for faculty who are required to teach these courses – some may enjoy it and others may find it daunting. Fortunately, there are numerous tried-and-tested strategies to help you teach a large class.
What is a large class?
There is no clear consensus on a precise number or the definition of a large class. The term is subjective and has more to do with what is perceived as ‘normal’ by any given individual. Nevertheless, classes in excess of 60 students begin to take any instructor into territory that offers unique challenges. These may include marking and recording mountains of tests and other assignments, dealing with distractions such as late arrivals and the chatty types in the back of the classroom, trying to learn names, trying to keep students accountable and recognizing the diverse backgrounds and levels of preparation among students.
Why do many students struggle in large classes?
In a university environment where students are already vulnerable to isolation and anonymity, large lecture halls full of strangers have the potential to contribute to students’ feelings of anonymity. It is worth pointing out that some students prefer larger classes for this feeling of anonymity; they don’t want to stand out or be seen or feel accountable. However, most student struggle in large classes, impacting their performance and general well-being.
Large classes are often first-year classes, comprised mostly of first-year students. First-year students often undergo a great deal of adjustment to university life. Some grapple with the realization that university is very different from high school – and frequently different from what they had imagined it to be. Students may feel overwhelmed and may be dealing with significant changes in their personal life (i.e., social, financial, etc.) as a result of starting university. Often, many are afraid of appearing ‘stupid’ in front of peers and instructors (and even of appearing ‘too smart’). Most are still learning what it means to be a university student, and often large classes exacerbate these feelings of insecurity, anxiety and confusion.
As a consequence, some students tend to shut down and not participate in large classes. The reasons for this include their perception of authority, their perception of the instructor, and their fears of peer judgment (Weaver & Jiang, 2005). Students feel alienated oftentimes from both their peers and their instructor and, therefore, may either be unengaged or disengage.
Such fears and perceptions are important to keep in mind when you are trying to establish an engaging and comfortable tone and create a rapport with the large number of students in your lecture hall. The following section offers specific advice for common concerns and questions for the lecturer of a large class. For more on strategies to develop engaging lectures, see Dynamic lectures.
Strategies addressing common concerns
How can I encourage attendance in my large classes?
- Make the class informative, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives, thus helping them to see the value of coming to class.
- Add variety to lectures (animations, slide shows, demos, video clips, music, guest speakers, etc.).
- Put outlines up on UM Learn, so that students know what to expect and can use them as a guide for taking notes (and not as a substitute for attending class).
- Use lots of supplemental illustrations/examples that students cannot get any other place other than in class.
- Give students a topic to think about for the next class discussion or a puzzle to solve for fun or for credit.
- Give regular announced quizzes that count towards the final grade.
- Provide short in-class assignments (20-30 minutes to complete) that give students the chance to apply what they have learned.
- Show students that success in the course depends on attendance and active participation in class.
How can I reduce student feelings of anonymity?
Try to learn the names of at least some of your students if not all. To help you do so, consider:
- Provide students with tent cards on the first day of class and ask them to write their preferred name and pronouns. Have students bring the tent cards with them to every class and place them on their desk (or hanging off their desk if space is limited.) During tests or group work, look at the name cards to learn students’ names as you walk around the room.
- When getting students to volunteer answers or ask questions, ask them to state their name before they share their thoughts.
- Return exams personally to associate names with faces.
- Ask students, at least for the first few weeks, to sit in the same seat, as much as possible. Every class, try to learn the names of a few students, perhaps by going row by row or working from the aisle seats inward. Then call on the students whose names you’ve learned during the class.
Create a more welcoming and inviting classroom environment by letting students get to know you:
- Share your interests, particularly as they relate to the course content.
- Explain what first got you interested in your course subject/field.
- Talk about any challenges you faced with certain concepts, either as a student yourself or when working in the field.
- Remember to show and share your passion for the course content with students. Research indicates that students tend to be more engaged and motivated when their instructors demonstrate a genuine interest in and passion for the course subject.
Find ways to connect with students on a personal level:
- Arrive early and chat with students who are already in the classroom. Wander to the back of the room and chat with the students seated there.
- Greet students as they come in.
- Stay a few minutes after class to answer individual student questions.
- From the first day of class, let students know how they can reach you – via email and office hours, for example – and encourage them to do so. Consider renaming ‘office hours’ to ‘student hours’ – and explain that this is time you’ve purposely set aside to help them.
- As much as possible, try lecturing or leading discussion from different points of the classroom to give students the feeling of being in the midst of the presentation or discussion.
- Provide many avenues for feedback from students to check for understanding:
- At the end of a unit and/or before the midterm, ask students to write down the “muddiest” part of your lecture and then clarify any areas of confusion with the material during the next class.
How can I create a positive class climate?
- Start on the first day of class, arrive at your classroom early with plenty of time to set up the room the way you want it. Have all the materials you need and a detailed lesson plan.
- When preparing your course syllabus, be sure to include all your contact information. Hand out the syllabus on the first day. Upload the syllabus in UM Learn in advance of the first classes so students who wish to can review it beforehand. Make sure to cover in the syllabus both student expectations and instructor expectations, and refer to these throughout the course as needed.
- Make Day 1 content memorable so students see the value in coming to class.
- Greet students, smile and start class on time.
- Lecture in 10–15-minute chunks and then have students engage in active learning activities so that they are thinking about what they’ve just heard. For suggestions on active learning strategies, please see the Centre webpage, Active Learning.
- Maintain a pulse on your class and change the pace as needed.
- Use visual aids as and when appropriate.
- Give feedback to students. Emphasize that making mistakes is a key part of learning. Share examples from your own experience when making mistakes helped you learn.
- Address any disruptive and/or disrespectful student behaviour immediately. For strategies on how to do so, please visit the Centre webpage, Conflict Management.
The following strategies address the need to create rapport with and among students and to create a welcoming, positive classroom community. These strategies are taken from the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence’s (n.d.).
The goal of these activities is to provide students with the opportunity to get to know one another. These activities are intended for groups of 2-4 people, and each one lasts approximately 5-10 minutes. When introducing these activities, tell students why you are using the activity. Consider using these activities throughout the term (i.e., not just in the first week of class). Note that some students might feel uncomfortable participating in interpersonal activities, especially icebreakers that are not tied to course content. It’s best not to force students to participate; rather, allow them to opt out and learn by observing.
Cell sharing: In a small group, each student shares a photo, song, or video from their mobile device that they think best represents them. Each person has a chance to talk about their selection and why they chose it.
Virtual introductions: Set up a discussion forum where students introduce themselves. This can be completely open-ended or structured (e.g., Introduce yourself by stating your name, your major, what year you are in, where you are from/where you live now, what you want to do after university). Instructors can then use this information to group students into similar groups or dissimilar groups and/or refer to students’ future occupations as they make connections between course content and professional applications of the material.
Texting interviews: Randomly pair students (can be done either face-to-face or virtually). Ask each student to develop 3-5 questions that they would want to ask others to help them get to know someone better. The pairs then text their questions and answers back and forth using a discussion forum that has been set up prior to the class. Interviewers summarize what they found out about their partners and post their partners’ names and this information in a class-wide discussion forum.
Common ground: In groups of two, students have 1 minute to find 6 things they have in common. They then pair with another group of 2 and then the group of four has 2 minutes to find 6 things that they all have in common.
Sharing trepidations: This can be done in small groups, online, or anonymously via the learning management system or a polling tool. Follow this with a discussion of students’ most significant concerns or fears.
Source: Centre for Teaching Excellence (n.d.)
These activities are meant to foster a positive class climate and engage students in the class community. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.
Syllabus icebreaker: In small groups, students identify outstanding questions or complete a syllabus quiz. An alternative would be to give an “assignment icebreaker” where students work in groups to discuss and identify questions regarding assignment instructions.
Class expectations: In groups of 2-4, students identify up to 6 ground rules for the use of technology in class (discuss pros and cons and etiquette). Instructors follow up by summarizing and discussing the expectations with students.
Collaborative start, stop, continue: Students work in pairs or small groups to provide their thoughts about what they’d like their instructor to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing in class. The groups then submit their responses to an online bulletin board. Instructors follow up by summarizing the results and discussing what will change/not change, and why.
Interview the instructor: Students work in groups to develop questions for the instructor. Questions should pertain to the instructor’s professional life.
Twitter scavenger hunt: Students in the course work in pairs to tweet the responses to ten questions. The questions are provided at the start of class and the students have the class period to complete the assignment, either in the class or outside of class. This assignment should be linked to course or class learning outcomes.
Source: Centre for Teaching Excellence (n.d.)
These activities aim to actively engage students with the course material. These activities can also be used to promote student-to-student interactions when students are asked to work on the activity in small groups. By participating in these activities in pairs or small groups, these activities also promote student-to-student interactions.
Collaborative response: The instructor poses a question to the class and invites responses by a show of hands or via an online immediate response tool. After providing their individual response students discuss the question in small groups. Each small group develops a group response which is then shared or submitted along with all individual responses.
Thought provoking questions: The instructor poses a thought-provoking, “yes or no” debatable question to which students respond individually and then discuss in groups of 2-4 (e.g., Food banks should be discontinued because they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.) The instructor follows up with a large group discussion. This can also be done in the large class with immediate response tools.
Using popular music to teach course concepts or themes: Music can be used in a variety of ways to encourage interaction and engage students in the course. One idea is to play energizing, popular music as students enter the classroom to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere, focus students’ attention to the course, stimulate conversation, and increase the instructor’s social presence. Increase the relevance of this activity by selecting a popular song that expresses the topic of the lecture and have small groups discuss the song’s relevance. As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs. Another idea is to use “Classroom Karaoke”: In Classroom Karaoke the instructor shows song lyrics on screen while playing the instrumental sound track and invites students to sing along or just follow along with the words (Baker, 2012). As the term progresses, ask student groups to suggest relevant songs.
Collaborative concept maps: Done either individually and shared, or created collaboratively from the start, a concept map can reinforce concepts learned out of class and build connections between various topics. Students map out how concepts, ideas or theories are thematically related in a visual manner. Any gaps can be useful inspiration for discussions either on a group of class level.
Find, post & vote: First, student groups find images from the media (e.g., advertisements, news headlines, TV shows, movies, newspapers, etc.) that portray the concept/topic being studied. Next, each group posts their image to a sharing site. Finally, the instructor and TAs create a selection of the top 10 images and the class votes for the winners and have a class discussion on why the winners were the top picks. The top selections can be displayed for the class on an online bulletin board.
Think-pair-share: Students take a central concept presented in the out of class material, or a particularly controversial quiz question from the prior assessment, and reflect on it individually before discussing it with a neighbour. Think phase: students work independently and flesh out their thoughts/arguments and may write their thoughts down. Pair phase: students discuss their response with a partner. Share phase: elicit responses from members of the class and begin to engage your students in a wider discussion demonstrating the many different perspectives. Note that in large classes, there might only be time for a sample of groups to share with the large class.
Inkshedding: Give students up to 3 minutes to write their thoughts about a thought-provoking question on a piece of paper (students are instructed to put their name on the paper). After 3 minutes, students pass their paper to the person next to them. The receiver adds comments on what was written and/or adds to it. Repeat this process two more times with the last round returning the paper to its original author.
Source: Centre for Teaching Excellence (n.d.)
Carbone, E. (1998). Teaching large classes: Tools and strategies. Sage Publications Inc.
Center for Research on Learning & Theory. (n.d.). Teaching strategies: Large classes and lectures. University of Michigan.
Kangas Dwyer, K., Bingham, S. G., Carlson, R. E., Prisbell, M., Cruz, A. M., & Fus, D. A. (2004). Communication and connectedness in the classroom: Development of the connected classroom climate inventory. Communication Research Reports, 21(3), 264-272.
Magna Campus Resources
The Magna Campus Resources website can be accessed via The Centre - Magna Campus Resources self-registered course available via UM Learn. If you have already self-registered for this course, click on the link(s) above (you may be prompted to login to UM Learn if not already signed in).
To self-register in this course to access the Magna Campus Resources website and the specific resources listed above:
- Sign in to UM Learn
- Select "Self-Registration" in the navigation bar at the top of the screen
- Scroll down to locate the following course from those listed:
- Course offering code: CATL_MAGNA_EVAL_CO
- Course offering name: The Centre - Magna Campus Resources
- Click on the course offering name (i.e., The Centre - Magna Campus Resources)
- Click "Register" below the course offering description
- Click "Submit" below your registration information
- Click "Finish" below the confirmation provided
- Select "Go to course offering The Centre - Magna Campus Resources" when prompted
- Once in the UM Learn course, click on "Magna Campus" [External Learning Tool] under 'Content'
- Select "Continue"
Baker, S. (2012). Classroom karaoke: A social and academic transition strategy to enhance the first-year experience of youth studies students. Youth Studies Australia, 31(1), 25-33.
Weaver, R., & Jiang, Q. (2005). Classroom organization and participation: College students’ perceptions. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(5), 570-601.