Tips for handling large classes

by Nicki Karimipour
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Teaching a large class may not be ideal, but could become a necessary part of our teaching careers, especially at Research I institutions around the country. Based on the classroom poll, most of us consider a large class to range anywhere from 50 to100 (and more) students. Some auditoriums and lecture halls can accommodate hundreds of people.

I took some of the most common concerns from my classmates and organized them into five main categories.

Challenge #1 – Course organization

These are decisions you should be making before ever stepping foot into the auditorium or lecture hall – decisions about the syllabus and what topics will be covered in your course.

Establish learning goals by identifying what is most important about your topic. What do you want students to know as a result of taking your class? This is where SLO (Student Learning Outcomes) can come in handy to help you discern the “big picture” skills, ideas and information. For many survey courses, the purpose is to provide a broad overview of a topic. It may be tempting (especially for new instructors and ambitious graduate students) to want to teach their students everything there is to know about a certain topic, but remember that it isn’t your responsibility to teach them everything – and furthermore, it’s not feasible.

Go through your syllabus with a critical eye and determine which topics you hope to cover are “essential” and which are “helpful.” If you are having a difficult time deciding what topics on your syllabus are “essential” versus “helpful,” university teaching centers around the nation recommend having a colleague go over your syllabus to determine which topics can be suggested as “further reading” for your students or simply eliminated altogether.

When deciding how to organize the class schedule, Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning suggests for instructors to consider organizing topics into a logical yet meaningful sequence. This can promote learning by allowing students to “chunk” related ideas, concepts, topics and information.

Challenge #2 – Lecture preparation

These are issues that can arise in pre-planning of a lesson and also in the actual class meetings.

It is important to rehearse in two ways: going over your lesson plan and materials before teaching class to ensure you are adequately prepared, you’ve though of salient examples to help illustrate certain points, et cetera. Another necessary rehearsal involves making sure that the room you will be teaching in is ready – checking for computers, necessary cords/wires/plugins, projection, sound, microphones, ability to play videos, and more).

The Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence suggests starting your lecture with a hook to grab attention. A hook can be an icebreaker, joke, pop culture/timely news reference. Starting with a hook helps begin the class on a positive and exciting note, and may keep students more engaged throughout class time.

Highlighting certain essential points and reiterating them throughout the lesson is a helpful way to let students know what topics are important and what information they should be taking notes on. Consider providing a visual agenda of the lesson – either on the board or in PowerPoint depending on the class size.

Throughout lecture, making references and providing examples that are relevant to students’ lives helps them recall concepts more easily. Varying your teaching method helps keep things interesting and breaks the monotony – this can be accomplished through coordinating guest speakers, student panels, using multimedia and demonstrations.

Challenge #3 – Structuring each class

These are issues you may have to deal with when creating your lesson plans.

  • Being concise is important – focusing on teaching the macro and not the micro. Students can easily find key terms, definitions and facts from their textbook or class readings. Consider using class time to reinforce these points through salient but memorable examples and/or discussing issues in a practical real world application.
  • Many teaching centers recommended that instructors provide “mental breaks” when structuring their lesson plans.

Challenge #4 – Course management

These are some logistical and management issues that come with teaching a course with large enrollment. They can be ongoing issues that you may have to deal with throughout the course of the semester.

Being clear about expectations and class policies is crucial. Having policies explicitly stated in the syllabus can prevent future problems. Remember, your syllabus is your contract with your students. Consider having policies about food, technology use, tardiness/attendance, academic honesty, et cetera.

When administering a test or quiz in a large class, there are some options to reduce the workload on you and your teaching assistants while also preserving a high level of academic honesty. Consider using Scantrons, having students sit every other seat and making multiple versions of a test. Requesting proctors or teaching assistants to come in and aid you during an exam may be another option. Some universities make use of a testing center (either a third party or university-operated) where students can take their exams on a computer and receive instant feedback.

Grading can also be an arduous task with a large class. Consider using course management systems such as Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, Desire2Learn, eCollege and more. This provides a standardized way for students to access grades virtually any time of the day in a manner that is convenient for them.

Challenge # 5 – Student Engagement

Like course management, these are also ongoing issues: keeping students excited, engaged and motivated to learn – both inside and outside of the classroom.

Technology can be a major distraction for students or a wonderful teaching tool for educators. It is important to know how to incorporate technology in a meaningful way – i.e., live-tweeting, using “clickers” or creating a course blog on Word Press, class Facebook page or hashtag for students to keep up with happenings more easily and on the go. According to a study done by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, 86 percent of students admit to texting throughout class. In the field of mass communication, it is especially important that we “keep up with the times” as instructors, which is why integrating technology is a necessary and crucial part of our syllabus, lesson plan and overall teaching methods.

Attendance (tardiness, leaving early, not showing up at all) can be an issue in a large class where attendance is not mandatory/not recorded and there may not be as much of a feeling of accountability for students. Strategies for dealing with attendance issues include providing incentives to promote attendance, such as quizzes and in-lecture information (not available online or in the textbook) that students must attend to find out. This gives them a reason to come to class.

Many of the teaching centers recommended dealing with discipline issues outside of class – deferring them until before/after class or to office hours may be the best solution, as not to distract the other students and disturb the learning environment.

Encouraging active learning and student engagement is ultimately the responsibility of the instructor, and can vary greatly based on his or her teaching style. In general, allowing students to provide their opinions and feedback to your lecture points allows them to feel more involved and motivates greater participation. Being a dynamic speaker is also important – walking around, varying your tone, providing timely examples and incorporating exciting hypothetical scenarios can help students learn. Echoing McKeachie’s sentiments, students appreciate humor, showing passion for your subject matter, and approachability. This is especially imperative in a large class. Showing students you are more than just a robotic “talking head” can help you forge meaningful professional relationships with your students.

References:

*University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsllc

*Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/earlycareer/teaching/LargeClasses.html

http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/interactive/index.html

*University of Maryland Center for Teaching Excellence: http://www.cte.umd.edu/library/teachingLargeClass/guide/ch5.html

*Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence: http://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/large-lectures/teaching-and-learning-in-large-leactures.html

*Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=790

*University of Arkansas Wally Cordes Teaching and Faculty Support Center: http://tfsc.uark.edu/118.php

*CBS Washington, D.C. article about college students and texting during class: http://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/10/21/study-86-percent-of-college-students-text-message-throughout-class/

*USA Today College article about students’ thoughts about large lecture courses: http://www.usatodayeducate.com/staging/index.php/campuslife/students-enjoy-large-lecture-hall-experience

Nicki Karimipour is a doctoral student at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).

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