Top Five Tips for Teaching Larger Classes

by Christine on April 26, 2010

For a recent CTL workshop, I reviewed the scholarly literature and scavenged the internet to distill a “Top Five” list of teaching tips for larger classes.  Here’s what I came up with:

Large Lecture Hall University of Iowa

Image 1: University of Iowa

1. Make a good first impression.

The first day of class is crucial for setting the tone for the rest of the quarter or semester.  According to research on the affective domain(which governs our brain’s emotional responses), teachers who provide a positive first impression can foster good feelings and increased motivation among students.  Conversely, a negative first impression (where one might come across as a police officer or rule enforcer) might condition students to view class as an unpleasant experience or to have a poor disposition toward learning. For more information on emotions, cognitive science, and learning, see The Art of Changing the Brain (J. Zull).

2. Personalize the classroom.

It’s almost impossible to learn students’ names in a class of over 50 students; however, there are other ways to help students feel recognized and connected to the learning environment.  Take the time to greet students as they come into the classroom or have students say their name when asking questions during the lecture.  Have students learn each other’s names and provide opportunities for them work in pairs or small groups.  Having students be accountable to each other can go a long way to prevent anonymity and lack of engagement during class.

3. Incorporate feedback.

Provide student feedback early and often.  This doesn’t always require formal assessment in terms of graded tests or written papers.  Informal assessment during class can be conducted through informal quizzes (three brief questions), minute papers (at the beginning or end of class), or use of technology (e.g. clickers) to check for understanding.  For quarter- or semester-long projects, have students submit drafts for you to offer guidance and ultimately to improve the quality of the final product.  Also, provide students with the opportunity to give you feedback through mid-term evaluations, and be sure to address their feedback — this lets students know that their opinions matter.

4. Take mental breaks.

All people, students included, have limited attention spans.  The first ten to fifteen minutes during class provide the optimal time for learning dense or challenging material.  After 15-20 minutes, it’s generally a  good idea to break up lectures through discussion, viewing a video, think-pair-share, or some other stimulus variation for individuals to practice what they’ve learned, re-energize students, and keep them alert.  See this article by Larry Robbins (UPenn) for more information on how to retain student attention in the classroom.

5. Include active learning.

Scholars from Kolb to Vygotsky advocate an interactive, constructive, and reflective learning environment to promote student engagement and retention of learning outcomes.  Typical examples for large lecture classrooms include small group activities or problem-solving, think alouds (verbalization of thought) in pairs, or online discussion boards and wikis to promote student interaction and reflection.  Be forewarned!  Students in large lectures will expect passive learning during large lecture formats and may therefore resist active learning in this setting.  So try to explain to your students the nature and importance of active learning early in the term, and let them know that their participation during class is expected.

For additional resources on teaching large lectures, see these links:

University of California, Berkeley

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (Penn State)

Image 1: University of Iowa

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