Description of large classes
As student enrollment numbers increase and university budgets shrink, class size will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. In this environment, the ability to lecture effectively in large classes is a critical skill to master. Large classes are frequently perceived as one of the main barriers to quality learning, and there are many studies that point to the challenges of teaching large classes. In spite of these challenges, large classes remain a reality in institutions of higher learning and are not likely to disappear in the near future (UNESCO, 2006).
There is no universally accepted number of students that constitute a large class; some institutions use the term “large” to refer to classes of more than fifty students, while other institutions regard a large class as one with more than one hundred students.
Implications of large class size in higher education
Large class size may be a cost-effective solution to budget crises (University of Maryland 2008), but can also present opportunities for instructors to improve their teaching skills. Large classes which, by their very nature, include a variety of students and learning styles, encourage instructors to incorporate diverse teaching methods in their classrooms. Large classes also benefit students by giving them the opportunity to learn from the interesting ideas and life experiences of a large and diverse body of classmates. This motivates learners and enlivens lessons by expanding student opportunities to discuss with and learn from each other (UNESCO 2006).
It is important to note, however, that the aforementioned opportunities and benefits can only be realized if an instructor is able to adequately manage and effectively teach large classes. In instances where an instructor finds it difficult to effectively teach large classes, some students may find the large class size intimidating. These students are likely to remain passive and unresponsive to questioning, only becoming familiar with those seated next to them. In other words, connection, interaction and communication with and among students can be hindered both by the large number of students and the physical distance from the instructor in classes where the instructor is not equipped to manage a large class (Brenner 2000).
Examples of how to effectively teach large classes
Since individual instructors vary and different institutions of learning maintain different requirements and expectations, there is no unique solution to the challenges of teaching large classes. Below, however, are some examples of how to effectively engage students in a large class.
Engaging students in large classes requires advanced planning and careful organization. Your plan should be geared towards monitoring whether or not your students comprehend what is taught. In developing a lesson plan, you should identify the topic to be taught, learning objectives, teaching methods, classroom arrangement, main activities, resources, and assessment methods. You should organize the day’s topics in a meaningful sequence in order to enhance smooth flow of thought. A visual display of the topic outline and learning objectives could be prepared to help students visualize the flow of the class and the relationships between the topics covered.
A cordial relationship between instructor and students inspires students to willingly participate in class. Therefore, instructors should attempt to know their students’ names and abilities. The instructor may start by introducing him/herself and, if possible, have the students introduce themselves to everyone. It is advisable for the instructor to move around the class while teaching; as this can reduce the physical and social distance between the instructor and students. The instructor should take full advantage of classroom space by ensuring that unnecessary furniture is removed, and identify spaces outside of the classroom that can be used as activity centers.
The instructor should remember that the attention spans of students are limited and split up class time accordingly. For example, a class period could be divided into twenty minutes of lecture time, followed by an activity and then additional lecture if needed. The instructor may also want to incorporate small-group learning in a large class to enhance critical thinking, promote cognitive elaboration, provide feedback and help students to appreciate diversity. It is also important that the instructor explain to students exactly how and why specific lessons are being taught in a particular style.
In addition, the instructor should give assignments that really assess whether or not students are learning what they are taught. The assignments should be centered on the process by which they solved a problem, along with how they can apply what they are learning to everyday life. Clear and thorough instructions should be given for every assignment. Finally, instructors should develop a system to keep track of student performance in order to easily identify students who may need special attention. Instructors should actively take attendance in order to avoid a drop in class attendance.
Research on the impact of large classes on student performance and teaching methods
Researchers have used various techniques to study the effect of class size on the quality of education. A study that examined the relationship between class size and student performance at Binghamton University revealed that large class sizes adversely affect both student performance and retention (Keil et al. 1996). In a similar study, Borden and Burton discovered that students in large classes did not perform as well as students in small classes (Borden and Burton 1999).
However, a number of scholars have established that good instructional design as well as effective lecturing positively affects students’ performances in large classes (Kwantlen University 2004). A study by Sid Gilbert revealed that faculty and student characteristics, along with course organization and management, are more important than class size in ensuring that students learn effectively. He stated that “what goes on in the classroom matters more than the size of the class.” Gilbert went on to suggest that course organization focused on thinking and reasoning rather than rote memorization produces more positive outcomes. He added that explicit course goals, organized course content and effective teaching methods could enhance meaningful participation and involvement in large classes (Gilbert 1995). In order to identify the most effective teaching methods for large classes, Jason Carpenter examined the effectiveness of several teaching methods including lecture, lecture/discussion combination, jigsaw, case study, and team project. The findings of his study indicated that lecture/discussion combination was the preferred teaching method among students in a large class setting (Carpenter 2006).
Useful links to resources and articles about large classes
The section provides links to websites and articles that have information about teaching large classes.
Teaching Large Classes, The University of Western Ontario Teaching Support Centre: This site is devoted to making teaching and learning in large classes effective, fruitful and pleasurable. It offers best practices along with a collection of questions and answers concerning teaching large classes.
Planning and Managing Large Classes, The Science Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of British Columbia: Advance preparation, motivation of students, humanizing the classroom, building rapport with students in large classrooms, learning student names, classroom logistics and management in the classroom are some of the topics addressed on this website.
Teaching Large Classes, The Learning and Teaching Office, Ryerson University: This site has a teaching guide that offers several strategies for teaching large classes.
Meeting the Challenges of Larger Classes, Educational Advisory Committee, Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto: The content of this site features tips on how to actively engage students in large classes. It includes practical ways to ensure that the lecture rewards students for being present, provides advice on accommodating diversity in large classes, and suggests rethinking tests and examinations.
Teaching Large Classes, Carlton College: This website contains strategies from faculty on keeping students actively engaged, making technology work for you, and getting small groups to work effectively and efficiently in large classes.
Teaching Large Classes, Centre for the Support of Teaching, York University: This website provides a series of practical strategies and ideas that can be used to prepare for and manage large classes, from the first day of class and throughout the year.
Teaching Large Classes, Center for Excellence in Teaching, Georgia Southern University: Difficulty in class management, interaction, communication, teaching styles, learning styles, assessment, and attrition are part of the challenges faced by faculty and students in large classes. This website offers techniques and strategies that can be used to address these challenges while enhancing teaching and learning in large classes.
Teaching Large Classes, Center for Instructional Development and Research, University of Washington: A website that provides resources about teaching large classes.
Teaching Large Classes, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State: This site contains strategies that have been successfully used by other faculty to actively teach students in large classes.
Teaching Large Classes, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Maryland: This website contains a teaching guide for large classes that includes tips to promote active learning in large classes. The handbook covers many topics, including establishing grounds rules, personalizing the large class, lecturing, discussion, etc.
Large Class Teaching Tips, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University: This website provides a synopsis of effective large class teaching techniques used by faculty at Iowa State University.
Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course, Office of Education Development, University of California Berkeley: This site, written by Barbara Gross Davis, offers general strategies on how to effectively teach large classes.
A Survival Handbook for Teaching Large Classes, Center for Teaching and Learning, University of North Carolina: Are you concerned about how you can encourage and take attendance in large classes? Or reduce feelings of anonymity? Better manage the class climate and improve on your lectures? This site contains a handbook that gives answers to these questions.
Strategies for Teaching Large Classes, The Office of Instructional Development, University of California at Santa Barbara: This website contains information on large classes and a dozen other sources for teaching large classes.
Large Classes FAQ, Campus Instructional Consulting, Indiana University: A website that outlines the nine most commonly asked questions about teaching large classes, and offers valuable answers to each question.
Teaching Large Classes-Best Practices, The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University: This website features best practices suggested by faculty during a seminar on teaching large classes. A broad range of issues are covered in this document, including how to survive a bad teaching assistant, providing individualized attention to students, and fostering class participation and discussion.
Teaching Large Classes, The University of Queensland, Australia: This site serves as a resource for academics and administrators involve in teaching and or managing large classes. The site includes resources, guidelines, case studies, and a bulletin board.
Effective Teaching When Class Size Grows, Association for Psychological Science: This paper by Todd Zakrajsek, offers several strategies on how to learn student names, create a friendly classroom environment, actively engage students, and manage grading in large classes.
Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Managing Large Lecture Courses: The content of this website was extracted from the book, Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes.
Teaching Large Classes Well: Solutions From Your Peers, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Penn State: In this issue, the Penn State ID Newsletter featured the experiences of faculty that have faced and successfully solved the problems of instructing students well in large classes.
Teaching Large Math Classes: Three Instructors, One Experience: This article, by Veselin Jungic, Deborah Kent and Petra Menz and published in the International Electronic Journal of Mathematics Education, defines large classes as those with 350 or more students. The authors identify the challenges involved, and offer suggestions in teaching large mathematics classes. Preparation, organization, course administration, instructional technique, use of technology, and student management are the central themes in this article.
For further information on teaching large classes, feel free to make an appointment with the Teaching Development Centre, University of Regina. All consultations are completely confidential.