Professors – Strategically Manage Your College Courses – Teaching Large Classes that Feel Small

Often, professors believe that the only workable instructional method in a large class is the lecture. After all, the rooms where we teach large classes are called lecture halls. I’d like to propose, however, that the lecture is only one of the methods that can be used effectively in a large class. Research conducted by Graham Gibbs (1998), of the Open University, indicates that the effectiveness of large introductory classes is increased when the focus is on learning rather than on teaching, when assessment is strategically employed to foster focus on learning objectives, when students do for themselves and for each other some of what the professor once did for them, and when peer support and peer pressure are fostered.

Another critical key to success in large classes is making them at times “psychologically small,” by dividing the large class into small groups for some of the learning experiences – starting from the very first day. Students thus have a smaller number of classmates to get to know and can feel safe. When larger groups are needed, the professor can combine two or more smaller groups, gradually expanding the number of students who interact comfortably.

Part of making a class seem psychologically small is to learn as many students’ names as possible. Learning names in a large class and thus encouraging participation by students who might otherwise feel anonymous is quite challenging. Consider having students make a note of every time they participate by asking a question, making a cogent comment, and so on, then direct them to turn in the notes, with their names, at the end of class each day, with enough description to allow the professor to identify the comment or question. The professor can then write back to each student with encouragement, answers, or whatever else is appropriate. A professor can also choose to give participation points to those students who take advantage of this learning opportunity.

A variation on this idea of participation notes allows you to take attendance as well. All students are given an index card on the first day. They write their names right on the top, and from that day forward they pick up their cards as they walk into class. The professor can see which cards are left in the box and thus can mark down absences. Either during the class or as a closure for the day, students are to write on their cards a question, a comment, a summary, or a point they would like to see reviewed in an upcoming class. After class, the professor can quickly read through these cards and get a sense of what was understood, what might still be muddy, and where an appropriate starting place for the next class period would be. They can also write back to the students to heighten the sense of connection that is so important to learning.

You can also choose to use teams of students in large classes,  Teams of four to six students are typically large enough to provide diversity of experience and motivation, while being small enough to manage. In a class of several hundred, you might designate the teams with names of states or other geographical regions, or the names of well-known political figures (e.g., Pierre Trudeau or John F. Kennedy). Allowing students to pick their own team members, following an icebreaker exercise, would reduce logistical challenges. You might also allow individuals to opt out, in which case they would do the entire team project themselves or with fewer partners.

In giving broad assignments, make it clear that team members must divide the work equitably. Team members could then evaluate the contribution of their teammates by assigning shares of a total allocation and communicating this allocation to you by private e-mail. For example, if you use five-member teams, each member would be expected to divide 400 points among the other team members (i.e., the rater excludes him or herself). The scores from one member for the other members might be 120, 110, 90, 80. All of the team members’ scores will be averaged, creating the individual team member’s score on the project. (To protect an individual student’s grade, a minimum threshold of 50 points might be imposed.)

You or one of your teaching assistants should probably meet early in the term with each team to clarify understanding of the syllabus, assignments, and so on. Or you might have the teams select captains with whom you will meet. You can also create e-mail lists for each team, and the class as a whole, to dispense information throughout the term and to facilitate feedback as projects move along. Such a setup can establish a didactic environment not only between you and your students, but also among the students themselves.

You need not limit the use of teams to outside assignments. Learning within the classroom is greatly enhanced when students are expected to play a more active role than they typically play in a large lecture-driven class. For example, after delivering a certain amount of material from the front of the room, have students discuss that material in pairs or “buzz groups.” Display several questions to be answered within the small group and then shared with another group across the aisle. In such a process, students advance in Bloom’s taxonomy toward a greater understanding of critical course concepts.

Employing teams and group discussions not only facilitates management of the large course but also creates opportunities for support and competition that will likely make the course more enjoyable for students while improving the quality of their learning. Working in teams also gives students an opportunity to develop their interpersonal skills and fosters learning beyond the classroom. Finally, this strategy helps you manage your time effectively by allowing you to focus on issues that emerge throughout the term as teams meet, rather than dealing with an array of questions all at the same time. Once you have experienced the results of this approach, and have worked through any loss of ego gratification that comes from being the “sage on the stage,” you will likely ask yourself why it took you so long to understand that education is more about student learning than it is about teaching.