Teaching Large Classes

Large “lecture” classes present particular teaching challenges, as they may feel more impersonal and disengaging for students. Luckily, at Mason, large classes are usually between 80-120 students, rather than the 500 seen at other large universities.  Still, student participation and attendance in large classes may also decrease as the semester unfolds. Simple strategies and sound practices may help ease some of these challenges and make the large class experience more meaningful for you and your students.

  • Arrive early to class to set up and greet students.
  • Come to class prepared and organized.
  • Make sure that students can hear you well and see the material you present from any angle of the class.
  • Move about the room and use a variety of presentation techniques to keep students engaged.
  • Because students’ attention tends to decrease after 15-20 minutes of the class, break up your lectures with learning activities, such as short discussions, writing prompts, shared problem solving, or demonstrations related to the material.
  • Use anecdotes to illustrate concepts.
  • Stress how your personal research, scholarship, or creative works influence the content of your class.
  • Point out current news, articles, and events that reinforce or enhance what the students are learning.
  • Stay for a few minutes after class to talk with students and answer questions.
  • Support learning beyond class time with pre-class emails and post-lecture discussion boards.
  • Seek feedback midway through the semester, and respond to that feedback in a way that acknowledges your students’ comments.
  • Invite students to contact you outside of class, and be clear on your preferred communication methods.
  • Use digital tools, like Blackboard or Twitter, to share information and create more community in the classroom.

Overall, there is no perfect way to teach large classes, but there are many good methods. Be patient, flexible, and open minded, and experiment with ways to engage your students. In time, you will develop approaches that work better for you and the way you teach your discipline.

Designing and Delivering Effective Lectures

Jason Adsit of SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Teaching & Learning wrote a Primer on Designing and Delivering Effective Lectures in The National Teaching and Learning Forum (Vol 20, No 5, pp 4-8). We have copies of the newsletter in the CTFE if you want to peruse the whole article. What’s interesting about the article is the focus on sharing “lectures that are informative, engaging, and participatory.”  His tips, abstracted:

  1. Plan Your Lectures: “A good lecture is the result of planning, preparation, and hard work, and it is essential that you invest the necessary time and energy into identifying resources, organizing the material, developing examples, and preparing supporting documents for your students.”
  2. Avoid the Tyranny of Content: “By presenting a manageable amount of information, you provide your students with more- and better- opportunities for processing and assimilating the material, connecting it to what they already know, and situating it within the larger framework of discipline.”
  3. Know Your Audience: “When designing a lecture, always try to think through the material from the standpoint of the audience, and remember what it was like to learn this information for the first time.”
  4. Create a Complete Lecture: “A good lecture… has three key components:an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.”
  5. Develop Lecture Notes: “Developing lecture notes can help you organize your thoughts in advance of a presentation and provide your with a script or roadmap to follow during the lecture.”
  6. Audience Engagement and Interactivity: “‘Activity breaks’… do not simply break up the monotony of a lecture; when done effectively, they provide participants with formal opportunities to process, review, and apply the material.”
  7. Create Visual Backups and Supports: “The key with any audiovisual aid – drawings, graphics, videos, PowerPoint slides, clips, or even writing on the chalkboard – is to keep it simple, clear, relevant, and uncluttered.”
  8. Quality Control: “Take a few minutes before each lecture to conduct a ‘quality control check’” (i.e. technology in the classroom, presentation, links, etc.
  9. Enthusiasm: “Expressing enthusiasm for a topic, and for one’s field in general, can have a positive impact on student engagement with the material.” Note: talking about your own academic research in the area can be very engaging!
  10. Ask Questions: “It is important to ask questions that are conversations starters [e.g. Asking the audience to rephrase a concept …in different terms] and not conversation stoppers [‘Are there any questions?’ is a signal that you are finished or ready to move on another topic].”
  11. Answer Questions: “Questions are a vital part of any lecture or presentation and provide opportunities for the whole audience to clarify, consolidate, and enhance their understanding of the material.”
  12. Reflection: “It is often helpful to jot down a few ideas while the lecture is still fresh in your memory and ask yourself: What could I have done to make this discussion more engaging, or meaningful, or clear?”

SCALE-UP Classroom

The Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) began as a National Science Foundation supported project to create more interactivity in large science classes, and includes innovation in both teaching techniques and physical classroom design.  While most large classes are not held in SCALE-UP rooms, the ideas about incorporating problem-based learning can used in most large classes.

Additional Resources for Teaching Large Lecture Classes

  • McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Svinicki and McKeachie, 2011, 13th edition) has two relevant chapters: Chapter 6 How to Make Lectures More Effective, and Chapter 18 Teaching Large Classes (You Can Still Get Active Learning!). CTFE gives this book to participants in the New Faculty Workshops in the fall, and we have copies available to check out in the CTFE library.
  • Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course, excerpted from Tools for Teaching (Davis, 1993).  More detail about the points above.
  • Ten things you can do to make your large lecture course more manageable and effective.