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Teaching Large Classes

In this section:

General Advice

Anyone who tells you that teaching a large enrollment class isn’t much different than teaching a small enrollment class probably hasn’t taught one. On the other hand, if all you do is lecture from a prepared script, then the observation is fairly accurate. There is a fundamental difference from teaching to a large class and helping student learn in a large class. The latter becomes exponentially more difficult as the class size increases. The following section is designed to provide faculty who are preparing to teach a large enrollment class with some basic advice on how to become successful with their student learning outcomes. For a more detailed and comprehensive resource, please visit our Online Resource Guide for Teaching Large Classes @ VCU.

My first advice is to engage is some pre-assessments. First, assess yourself. Teaching in a large classroom isn’t for everyone. If you are shy, introverted, soft-spoken, and insecure then you may want to reconsider. If you have no choice, then I would do my best to overcome these personality characteristics to some extent. Also, visit your classroom well in advance of the first class meeting. Knowing the layout of the room, as well as the technology in the room will help you prepare for how you will engage your students. Lastly, assess the student population that will likely enroll in your course. VCU students vary a great deal in terms of study habits, work ethics, preparation, and diversity. Knowing your students will also help you prepare in terms of learning styles, examples and teaching methods. The more prepared you are to teach a large enrollment class, the fewer problems you will face at the end of the semester. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure” certainly rings true in this context.

Course Design and Syllabus

Given the variety of students at VCU, establishing some balance between structure and flexibility in your course. This is easily reflected in your syllabus. Establish very firm policies regarding attendance, make-up tests, classroom conduct, and honor code expectations. This will not only be advantageous for the students who need structure, but it will be good for your own well being as well. Providing exceptions to any of the aforementioned policies is a slippery slope that will generate more work for you and possible grievances from students who will challenge your sense of fairness. Be strict with test dates for the same reasons mentioned above. However, it would perfectly acceptable for you to be flexible with your course material, class participation options, and even testing options. Although you will be resigned to standardized tests in large classes, some students take written tests better. Having a written test on hand for a few students and giving them the option does not create much more work for you and your students will appreciate the options.

Lastly, try and make the large class feel small. Humor, story telling, coming a little early and trying to get to know some of your students by name, are all great ways of establishing a sense of community. For many people a large class is more like a small town—even bigger than the town from which they came! Creating a sense of community early and often is a great way to reduce the negative affects of anonymity. You can even generate class composite— pictures of all of the students in your class with their names. Even if you only memorize a small number of them each week, it will go a long way to establishing a sense of community.

Lecturing and Beyond

Historically, lecturing has been one of the most efficient ways of delivering course material. These days however, this may no longer be the case now that the internet and course management systems like BlackBoard are readily available. We now have the opportunity to move some of that course material into virtual spaces for students to access outside of class—freeing up more time during class for other activities. Furthermore, where lectures may have been the most efficient (effective) way of delivering course material, they certainly were not—and are not—the most efficient way of learning the material. Now that we have these instructional technologies at our disposal, consider the question, “What can you do in the classroom that you cannot do anywhere else?” Lecturing and /or delivering course material is not the top answer anymore. By no means are we suggesting that you should completely abandon the lecture. Consider using your lectures sparingly—for the material that is particularly difficult or that is not readily available in other mediums i.e. your own research, or current trends. These may be more accurately referred to as lecturettes.

A more practical response to the question, “What can you do in the classroom that you cannot do anywhere else” is, you can engage in face to face interaction—and/or create opportunities where you can observe your students in face-to-face interactions leaving you with the opportunity to provide prompt, professional feedback. After all, teaching and learning is, by its very nature, interactive. When one lectures and never asks questions, never surveying the class for body language, there is no interaction—they are just teaching at best, or talking at worst. One of the best things you can do for your students is to provide them with the opportunity to ”reflect” and to  “think out loud” in small groups / pairs where you and your TAs (if you have them) can assess where they are and to provide prompt, professional feedback immediately. As a byproduct, you can lower the incidents of high anonymity and low accountability.

For those of you interested in how to spend class time interacting with student’s and helping them to understand better, there is a large body of literature and resources devoted to active learning. Although much of these are more suitable for small classes, there are plenty of resources and techniques that lend them selves to the large class setting—in particular, those that utilize small, informal, loosely structured, pairings of students. Some examples include:

  • Think / Pair / Share
  • Minute papers
  • Brainstorming
  • Note-making: comparing / sharing class notes
  • Pick your Poison: have students pair off and write test questions. The best ones will show up on the next test.

There are also technologies available that are useful for promoting student engagement, reflection, comprehension, and discussion. One in particular is called classroom response system technology (or audience response systems). We use the Classroom Performance System (CPS) by eInstruction at VCU. Click here for more information about this technology and how to use it in a large class setting.

Testing and Assessment

As discussed in the previous section, students benefit from: frequent opportunities to assess how well they comprehend the material; prompt, professional, performer friendly feedback; and frequent opportunities to promptly apply that feedback and reassess. These techniques have been referred to as Classroom Assessment Techniques (or formative assessments).The following suggestions are meant to be options, some are pore practical than others given the context in which you teach.

  • Four exams instead of a midterm and final
  • Extra credit options: papers or projects to be averaged with, or to replace, low test grades
  • Written tests / assignments as options in lieu of M/C exams
  • Frequent low-stakes quizzes (weekly, if not daily)
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques
  • Class participation points

Classroom Management

One of the best byproducts of a well designed course that promotes student engagement through inclusiveness, active learning, and frequent testing and assessment is that classroom management issues diminish precipitously. Surely you recall the old adage, “Idle hands are the devils workshop!” This really does apply to the large classroom that is governed by the didactic lecture and passive learning. In this environment we have come to expect: side conversations, cell phone conversations, reading of newspapers, crossword puzzles, arriving late and leaving early, etc. The point being, much of the disruptive behavior that is witnessed in large classes is due to disengagement, boredom, and/or restlessness. These issues will not magically go away, but they will be reduced.

Another method for curbing disruptive behavior is to set your expectations early and often. From the first day of class you should broach the subject with your students and have them add to the conversation. You may be surprised that many of them will deem these same behaviors as disruptive to their learning. By including them in the conversation, you can begin to develop a culture of respect and an academic “code of conduct,” and you can begin to develop a bit of a community policing model to the issue.

Very rarely you will come across a student who is aggressive, verbally abusive, and potentially violent. In these circumstances, there is little you can do to prevent or even mediate outbursts effectively. For situations like this, you should consult your department chair, VCU Counseling Services, and the Faculty Guide to student Conduct in the Classroom

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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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