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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Strategies for Making a Big Class Feel Small

April 13, 2022
ND Learning
empty lecture-style classroom with theatre seating

By Julian Chike

Teaching a large class presents certain challenges especially in relation to student engagement and belonging. How can you counteract the tendency toward student disengagement and feelings of alienation and anonymity when teaching in a large classroom setting? What strategies can you employ that will create opportunities to engage your students effectively and to enhance their overall learning experience? In what follows, I offer practical ways you can infuse your large classroom with a small classroom feel. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my years TAing small sections to teaching a 30-person class and now looking ahead to teaching 100+ student lectures. 

I. Establish and Maintain Good Rapport

  • Learn your students’ names. Learning names in a large classroom can be difficult but it’s well worth the effort (Cooper et al. 2017). Calling a student by their name is a powerful way to make them feel noticed and welcome. This sense of belonging is vital to their overall learning experience. Something I’ve done is to bring a bag of assorted bite-size candies. After hearing their name at least once, I tell the students that if I call on them without using their name, I’ll give them a piece of candy. Incidentally, I found that my name game also increased student engagement because they wanted a chance to get free candy! For additional name-learner tips click here.
  • Leverage online discussion boards. It’s often impossible to have one-on-one conversations with students or to foster peer dialogue in a large classroom. Online discussion boards provide one way to cultivate a small class community feel. The discussion board could be used to dialogue about a particular question or topic from the course. Or, the discussion board can be more informal. For instance, before a semester begins (or after mid-semester break), I invite my students to post a selfie of something they did over the break and to provide a brief description along with the picture. 

II. Incorporate Active Learning Activities

  • In-Class Polling. Provide space for students to actively engage with the material through asking them to answer a multiple choice question. There are two benefits to this. First, it’s quick. Using polling software like Clicker Response Cards or Poll Everywhere enables students to answer quickly and allows you to see the spread of responses quickly. Second, it gauges comprehension.  If the answer was “C” but 30% of the students selected “B,” you have an opportunity to clarify course content.
  • Minute Paper. Give students an opportunity to enhance their learning experience through Classroom Assessment Techniques like the Minute Paper. At the end of class, for instance, you could invite your students to respond to one of the following prompts: What is the most important lesson you’ll take away from today’s class? What is something you’re still confused or curious about? Which part of the lesson did you find most illuminating? Use online platforms such as GoogleForms to collect the responses. Not only does this enhance the learning experience of your students, it gives you a quick glimpse of how your students are processing the material. 

III. Promote Feedback Loops

  • Post-Exam Feedback. After grading an exam, plan to send two kinds of emails. First, for students who receive a B- or lower on an exam (or other major assessment), send an email that commends their effort and communicates that you’d be happy to meet to help them better understand material that may be unclear. Second, for those who demonstrated improvement, send an email congratulating them and expressing your gratitude for their efforts. To be time-efficient, draft comment backs for both scenarios that are general enough to be used after any exam or major assessment, and consider using a mail merge program. When a student in a class of 80+ students receives a personal email from their instructor, it reaffirms the student that they are seen and valued.
  • Explain Everything Videos. In-class time is precious. Sometimes it’s instructive to explain the answer to a specific assessment question that many struggled with. Doing so, however, means you may not get through your lesson plan. Instead, use video recording platforms like Zoom, Panopto, or Explain Everything if these are available to you. These recordings can be posted on learning platforms such as Sakai or Canvas for all students to access. This increases your presence, further maintaining rapport, and it provides students with the explanations needed without cutting time from the lesson plan.

When teaching a class of any size, our task is to create the circumstances in which significant learning can occur. Strategies for effective teaching in small classrooms can apply to large classrooms as well. The key is the ability to adapt your practice to the unique dynamics of a large classroom setting. In other words, good pedagogy is good pedagogy regardless of class size. As you incorporate these practices, take note of what works and what doesn’t. Invite your students to evaluate the efficacy of the approaches. Be willing to make necessary adjustments along the way. Excellence in teaching is an ongoing process during which we should turn our gaze from the summit to focus on the climb.

Further Resources:

Barkley, E. F. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Carbone, Elisa Lynn. Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998.

Cooper, James L. and Pamela Robinson.  “The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small.”  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 81 (2000): 5-16.

Cooper, Katelyn, Brian Haney, Anna Krieg, Sara Brownell, and Nancy Pelaez. “What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom.” CBE: Life Sciences Education 16, no. 1 (2017): 1–13.

Golding, J. “Teaching the Large Lecture Course.” Pages 95–120 in D. Royse, ed. Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Heppner, Frank. Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Klegeris A, Hurren H. “Impact of Problem-Based Learning in a Large Classroom Setting: Student Perception and Problem-Solving Skills.” Adv Physiol Educ. 2011, 35(4): 408 -15.

Renaud, Susan, Elizabeth Tannenbaum, and Phillip Stantial. “Student-Centered Teaching in Large Classes with Limited Resources,” English Teaching Forum Number 3 (2007).

Stanley, Christine A. and M. Erin Porter.  Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty.  Boston: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

Wilsman, A. Teaching Large Classes. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, 2013.