Teaching Large Classes
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Parts of this article have been amended with permission from the Centre for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, retrieved on May 8, 2018.
Teaching a large class poses many challenges, both in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, large enrolments can promote student disengagement and feelings of alienation, which can erode students’ sense of responsibility and lead to behaviours that both reflect and promote lack of engagement. Logistics can also be a challenge when teaching a large class. How can you best manage the daily administration of what can often feel like a small city? Below are suggested strategies to help instructors deal with some of the challenges associated with teaching large classes.
While encouraging class participation can be challenging in any class, it can be especially difficult for instructors of large classes. To effectively evoke participation in such teaching contexts, it is helpful to understand the factors that discourage involvement. In the article, “ Putting the Participation Puzzle Together,” Weimer (2009) attempts to uncover precisely what motivates students to be active participants in the classroom. Weimer does this by analyzing a recent study that tests common hypotheses about the nature of student participation. The study found that, while a multitude of issues affect student participation levels, a few emerge as particularly important. First, students’ perception of faculty authority can make a substantial difference in determining whether or not students participate. Second, students’ perceptions of the instructor, developed through interactions outside of the class, have a large impact on student participation. Finally, student fears of peer judgment explain why many students choose not to participate.
Faculty Authority: Combatting perceptions of the instructor as fount of knowledge
The issue of faculty authority requires particular attention. In often freshmen-heavy large classes, many students feel that the instructor is the arbiter of knowledge. To these students, the ideas and arguments of the instructor are not meant to be challenged. Certainly, students in this environment are more likely to sit silently in class and take it all in. If, as instructors, we hope to avoid this, we must make sure that our courses are content-centered, not instructor-centered. How can we do this? We can model the kind of questioning inherent in our disciplines and ask students to practice those questioning skills through exercises, in-class and out. We can also be careful to underscore the degree to which knowledge in our fields is contested and constantly evolving.
To allow students to practice the skills they should develop, it can be helpful to break up the class into 10-20 minute segments, incorporating a specific question or exercise that requires student participation in each segment. The question or exercise can take several forms (for more examples of these kinds of exercises, see the CTL resources on Active Learning and Critical Thinking ).
In this simple exercise, the instructor poses a question or problem to the class. After giving students time to consider their response (think), the students are asked to partner with another student to discuss their responses (pair). Pairs of students can then be asked to report their conclusions and reasoning to the larger group, which can be used as a starting point to promote discussion in the class as a whole (Angelo & Cross, 1993). This exercise helps promote engagement because students feel greater responsibility for participation when paired with one other student; lack of participation becomes obvious and problematic. In addition, the inclusion of “think” time and the initial opportunity to talk about a response with a single peer reduces the anxiety some students feel about responding to instructor prompts.
This classroom assessment technique can also be used to promote student engagement (Angelo & Cross, 1993). At the end of a class segment, students are asked to spend one to three minutes writing the main point of the class as well as any remaining questions they may have about the course material to that point. These papers can serve multiple purposes: they can be used by the instructor as a formative assessment technique; they serve as a tool to promote metacognition, asking students to consider what they do and don’t understand; they can be used as the basis for small or large group discussion. As with the think-pair-share technique, the minute paper gives students time to compose and articulate their thoughts, increasing their comfort with asking questions or entering discussion.
This modified version of the minute paper asks students to articulate the point that is most unclear to them at a given point (Angelo & Cross, 1993). It serves the same functions and has the same potential uses described for the minute paper.
Questions that can be presented as multiple-choice questions are particularly amenable to use with “clickers,” or a classroom response systems. All students in the class are asked to choose a response to the question, and the results can be displayed in real time. If the instructor wishes, student responses can be tracked, either to serve as an attendance measure or as a formative assessment tool. This approach has the benefit of broad student participation in the mental work of answering the question. In addition, clicker questions can be used to foster discussion very effectively (Crouch & Mazur, 2001); if a significant fraction of the class answers incorrectly, then student groups can be asked to discuss before re-voting.
Find out more about Western’s clicker solution, visit PressWestern.
When planning these questions or activities, keep in mind that large classes present advantages as well as special challenges. In these large classes, think of students as a diverse human resource to be drawn upon in pursuit of your learning goals. To help ensure that the students serve as this resource, it is vital that you set the right tone from the beginning. Make it clear during the first weeks of class that you expect students to question you and interact during class, and introduce questions or exercises that make that interaction both expected and safe.
These approaches are particularly effective when they take advantage of the opportunity for small-group work. Studies suggest that small-group activities promote student mastery of material, enhance critical thinking skills, provide rapid feedback for the instructor, and facilitate the development of affective dimensions in students, such as students’ sense of self-efficacy and learner empowerment (Cooper & Robinson, 2001). Assigning group members roles (like facilitator, recorder, divergent thinker, etc.) or distributing a group assessment rubric can keep groups relatively balanced and fair and help ensure participation by all group members.
Student perceptions of the instructor can be particularly challenging to deal with given that in large classes, it is more difficult to have meaningful exchanges with each and every student. However, there is much that you can do to project a demeanour that promotes student participation.
Some instructors use “equity cards,” which are generated from students’ pictures. Instructors call on people at random from the card pile. This ensures that the instructor uses students’ names, helps ensure a broad base of participation, makes students less likely to disengage during class, and can be a helpful tool in learning students’ names. Western’s Faculty/Staff Extranet allows instructors to review and download student photos for your course.
At the beginning of each semester, some instructors ask students to fill out note cards describing some of their interests. By looking over these note cards and memorizing student names, you can get to know your students and greet them by name, and speak with them as they enter the classroom. Such efforts often result in a better rapport between professor and student, and, as a consequence, a more engaged classroom.
These behaviours can bolster student confidence, and more confident students are much more likely to participate in class. Many students will shut down in a class when they perceive an instructor as harsh. In such cases, the fear of instructor disapproval becomes more pronounced.
One approach to encouraging the use of office hours is to require students to meet with you in groups of four during the first few weeks of the semester. You may find that the brief social interaction (generally, about 15 minutes per group) helps you remember students’ names and makes the students more comfortable with you and a small group of their colleagues.
Fear of peer judgment is a participation disincentive for many students, particularly in large classes where students fear being embarrassed in front of dozens or even hundreds of their peers. To best deal with student fears of peer judgment, it’s critical that instructors promote an environment of trust and mutual respect from the very beginning of a course. In such an environment, students are more likely to feel safe to actively participate in class. Try to foster a sense of personal connection between students and instructors through group and partner activities that help students get better acquainted. The resulting feelings of cohesiveness are especially valuable because students who feel that connection are far less likely to go against their classroom community’s norms. Finally, be sure to balance student voices by not allowing any students to dominate discussions and by protecting students from interruption.
All of the approaches described above allow students the opportunity to engage with class questions and challenges anonymously or in small groups instead of, or prior to, large class discussion. These tools can therefore reduce student fears and promote participation. In addition, online discussion boards can provide structured opportunities for students who are otherwise too shy to participate in class discussion.
Large courses come with an array of logistical issues that can turn into a nightmare if you are not prepared to handle them. How do you prevent your e-mail box from overflowing with student e-mails in the 24 hours before an exam? How do you manage that line that sometimes develops down the hall during your office hours? In this section, taking attendance, managing student email, and managing office hours are discussed.
Taking Class Attendance
In large classes, attendance can be a problem. Students may feel anonymous and decide they don’t need to attend because they won’t be missed. While many instructors do not take class attendance in their large classes, some do. But how can one best take attendance in a class of 200 or more students? Certainly, many instructors rely upon an attendance sheet that is passed around the room, but this is often a headache with the sheet being lost or students signing in for one another. Brief in-class assignments or quizzes can also be valuable in taking attendance. One can require that students answer a class day-related prompt on a notecard at the end of class, sign it, and hand it in before leaving. This notecard can be graded or not. Another way to ensure that class attendance remains high is by giving pop quizzes periodically.
Managing Student E-mail
When teaching a seminar class, you can expect a small percentage of students to e-mail regarding the coming exam in the 24-hours preceding it. When you have 200+ students, however, that same small percentage can overwhelm your e-mail box. What can you do?
Undergraduate students have grown up in an era in which many of them expect immediate responses to their emailed questions, big or small. This, however, is an unreasonable expectation for those of us not attached to our smartphones, and even for some of us who are, and students need to be made aware of this early on in the semester. Many instructors discuss their rules for email in their syllabus. For example, “I will read and respond to student emails once per day, each morning” or “Please give me 24 hours to respond to each email.” Such rules can help avoid rapid-fire emails from students, many of which may ask why it’s taking so long for you to respond to their question. Students will also be more inclined to think ahead with their questions and concerns: the professor will not get back to students immediately just because they waited until the last minute on a given assignment.
Some instructors give students a line or word limit for their emails. Some suggest that students keep emails to four lines or less, while others have more stringent requirements, such as limiting the body of student emails to 140 characters, the length of a Tweet. Such rules help ensure that student email is clear and concise.
Some questions lend themselves to quick e-mailed responses, others don’t. It may be valuable to tell students what kinds of questions you will answer via e-mail and which are better left for office hours or in-class Q&As.
The 24 hours prior to an exam is often a time when panicked e-mails flood into instructor inboxes. Likewise, the 24 hours prior to a paper due date is also a busy time, as students often scramble for extensions. Again, clarity with expectations is important. You should notify students when you will stop responding to emails regarding the exam, whether it’s 24 hours, 12 hours, or 2 hours in advance, and how long you require to answer questions re an assigned paper. Clear and consistent rules can be helpful and may encourage students to think ahead.
Managing Office Hours
Being an instructor of a large course sometimes means managing dozens of eager office hour visitors each week. However, having students mill around outside your office during office hours isn’t only a nuisance for your office neighbours, it’s not a valuable use of students’ time. Consider implementing a formal scheduling system for our office hours using a tool such as SignUp in OWL, Western’s Learning Management System, so students can sign up for meeting a course instructor.
TAs are capable of handling many student issues, and there are some issues for which our TAs are actually better suited than instructors (for example, for discussion section questions or lab questions). Make sure that your TAs are available for office hours and encourage students to visit TAs with their issues, particularly when you are unavailable or otherwise too busy.
Sometimes, in the days preceding an exam, in particular, students will visit your office hours expecting to hold an hour-long one-on-one study session. This could certainly be valuable for the student, but can you manage such a session given the time constraints that come with being an instructor of a large class? If the answer is no, you may want to organize a dedicated review session or simply tell students in advance that you cannot be their “study buddy.” Other times students may come by to chat. While there is value in cultivating cordial relationships with your students, if this is not something that you can abide in your schedule, instruct students to only drop by office hours if they have specific questions, or again encourage them to interact with their TAs.
Office hours tend to be one-on-one meetings with students. However, there are some situations in which meeting with students in a group can be just as effective and a time-saver as well. Do three students want to meet with you regarding the makeup of the exam? Assure that they’re comfortable meeting as a group, and then schedule them together.
If your schedule makes fulfilling your weekly office hours difficult, or if you are interested in holding extra office hours in a given week, you can always hold remote office hours. If you are interested in conducting office hours online, OWL provides a mechanism to do so. Blackboard Collaborate, a plug-in for your OWL coursesite, lets you live-broadcast and collaborate with students online.
Large courses come with grading problems familiar to instructors across a range of disciplines. On the one hand, you don’t want to have so many graded assignments that you and your TAs are bogged down with incessant grading. On the other, you do want to have enough assignments so that you can adequately assess student learning with a fair grading system for your students, your TAs and yourself.
For a wide variety of suggestions and strategies to manage assignments and grading for large classes, see the CTL resource on Grading Strategies.
Large classes can range in size from 100 to 700 students, or even more in some cases. In classes this large, it is inevitable and necessary that you will have multiple Teaching Assistants to help you with everything that goes into teaching such a large number of students.
While TAs can be a blessing, they can also bring challenges, such as they may:
- have worked as a TA before and thus be more experienced than others who have not
- be reluctant or terrified to instruct students in a tutorial session
- be less confident, but others may be overconfident
- be more assertive, perhaps even challenging your authority, while others are more reticent and less likely to take initiative
- be dedicated hard workers while others are less motivated.
Given the wide range of personalities and working styles of your Teaching Assistants, how can you achieve a harmonious working relationship with them and get everyone pulling together? A good place to start is the Western Guide to Working with Teaching Assistants (2017).
The guide covers everything from your role as a TA supervisor, making initial contact, assigning duties, preparing TAs for marking and proctoring, TA office hours and supporting and assessing TA performance.
Since a lot of what TAs in large classes do is mark assignments and papers, another key resource to read is the CTL resource on Grading Strategies, which has a section on working with TAs for consistent and fair grading.
The other major duty that TAs often perform is running tutorial or lab sessions. Just as with grading, TAs come to discussion-leading with different levels of expertise. Some will be at home in the classroom. Others will be terrified to speak in front of their students. It’s a good idea to get a gauge on this in the weeks preceding the semester so that you can give your TAs the appropriate level of support. Some may be independent-minded and will desire considerable control over what happens in their classrooms, and others may require strong guidance. Thus, before you get to know your undergraduates, you ought to get to know your TAs.
If you have TAs who require a strong support system or if you want to maintain some control over discussions, lab sessions, and review sessions, regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings can be valuable. These meetings can serve many purposes. You can use this time to go over important concepts and course content with your TAs who likely don’t have your expertise. You can also use this time as a “check-in” period to get a sense of how the course is going for your TAs and undergraduates alike. Professor/TA meetings can also be a forum in which you provide TAs with handouts or discussion guides to help facilitate their class time. Ultimately, how much control you want to exert over your discussion sections, lab sessions, or review sessions is up to you, but setting aside a time to meet with our TAs is valuable because it provides professor and TA alike with a support structure in which everyone can talk through issues relating to the class.
There’s a great deal that we can do with OWL, Western’s Learning Management System, to organize and maintain our large classes, and even advance our learning goals. Certainly, we can use the service to distribute course content like readings and syllabi. We use the gradebook tool to keep track of and submit student grades. We can also use OWL to conduct office hours online through the Blackboard Collaborate plug-in, as discussed in the “Managing Logistical Issues” section of this guide.
However, one of the most useful features of OWL is the forum tool. Integrating an online discussion board into the classroom experience is a great way to provide structured opportunities for our quieter students to participate in the course. While this is a valuable tool in small courses, it’s particularly valuable in large courses because so many students might have wonderful things to contribute yet receive comparatively fewer opportunities to do so as one of many students. Consider posing online discussion questions before lessons to get students thinking about the material before class, or asking students to respond to discussion questions after class to demonstrate their synthesis of the material.
Many university professors have utilized Twitter in their classrooms to great effect. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is Dr. Monica Rankin’s “Twitter Experiment” in her introductory history class at UT Dallas. In this course, Rankin lectures on Monday and Wednesday, and organizes a small group discussion on Friday in which Twitter is used as a backchannel where students share questions and ideas between groups. You can find an excellent five-minute video on Dr. Rankin’s “Twitter Experiment” here: The Twitter Experiment – Twitter in the Classroom.
As discussed in the “Promoting Student Engagement” section, classroom response systems or “clickers” are a great way to get students involved in classroom discussions. One popular technique is to pose a question, ask students to consult their classroom neighbour, ask them to submit their answer as a pair, and then ask some students to share out their responses. Western's officially-supported audience response system is iClicker Cloud by iClicker. The iClicker system includes desktop software for presenting and for collecting responses, virtual (making students’ devices the clickers) and physical clickers.
Clickers work for a multitude of reasons. Clicker responses can be displayed anonymously, so they embolden students to participate. Even if students, upon seeing the results, notice that their answer is not the most popular, by seeing that others got the same question wrong, it is often easier for students to try to defend and explain their wrong answer: a starting point for some valuable teaching moments. Clickers are also a great way to get everyone involved in the class and not just the students who are willing to speak out loud. Finally, clickers are fun! For some ideas on how to best integrate clickers into our classrooms, one resource is this quick and easy guide, written by Dr. Derek Bruff, “Multiple-Choice Questions We Wouldn’t Put on a Test: Promoting Deep Learning Using Clickers.”
Another tool that can be used to promote learning in a large class is VoiceThread, a plugin for your OWL coursesite. With VoiceThread, you can post an image, document, or video online and have our students comment on it. Students can add a video comment, audio comment, or a text comment to whatever you or your students post. What results is often a rich, multimedia conversation between instructors and students. In her book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock outlines how she regularly integrates VoiceThread into her Art History classes. For an example of how one might use VoiceThread, visit one of Dr. Pacansky-Brock’s real VoiceThreads.
Academic offences such as cheating and plagiarism are common problems in university courses big and small, but in large courses, it can be particularly difficult to identify an academic offence when it happens. That’s because we’re grading such a high volume of exams, essays, and assignments that the kind of careful analysis often necessary to identify offenders is more difficult. You might not know your students and their work as well, and it’s that knowledge that typically helps instructors identify cheating when it is going on. As anyone who has proctored an exam for 200+ students can attest, it can be very difficult to keep up with everything that’s going on in our small city-sized courses. So what can you do?
Be upfront with your expectations
Having been to graduate school, the average university instructor is well-versed in what “plagiarism” entails. Nevertheless, not a year goes by without a professor at a major university being accused of plagiarism. Certainly, sometimes it’s deliberate. Oftentimes it’s not. That’s because what constitutes things like “plagiarism” and “cheating” is not always clear to many of higher education’s professional academics.
Given that fact, the students in often freshmen-heavy large courses are even less clear on what we mean when we speak of these concepts. While they are likely familiar with black and white scenarios (copying answers off of their neighbour’s exam is cheating), do they know what constitutes an academic integrity violation in those grey and murky scenarios that sometimes confront them?
- What are your expectations for “open book” exams?
- If students are allowed to work on homework assignments in pairs or groups, are they allowed to hand in comparable or identical assignments?
- How do you want students to cite sources in their papers? Is a works cited page required?
As the instructor, you and your TAs need to anticipate such questions. Upon handing out a paper or homework assignment, either you or your TAs ought to have a conversation with students about expectations. Ideally, you should put those expectations in writing on the syllabus or handout sheet, so that students have something to which they can frequently refer. Putting those expectations in writing also helps should you ever need to charge a student with a cheating offence. Some instructors even choose to dedicate early class time to giving their students a tutorial on cheating and plagiarism.
Dealing with cheating on exams
Trying to catch an individual or a small group of cheaters in an exam of 100+ students can be a difficult task, but there’s a lot that you can do to make cheating more difficult.
Proctoring can seem basic: watch the students as they take the exam and make sure they’re not chatting or looking at one another’s tests. However, there are some aspects to proctoring that are easily overlooked. For example, it can be difficult to observe students when they are wearing a hat that covers their eyes, so many professors require that students either remove their hats or put their hats on backwards. Another often-overlooked feature of proctoring is the need for at least two proctors. Part of the proctor’s role is often to field student questions regarding the exam, but while the instructor is answering that question, who is observing the students?
Effective proctoring also includes managing student bathroom breaks. If a student absolutely must use the bathroom, have a proctor of the same gender accompany the student into the bathroom and back. If there is no proctor of the same gender, then at least the proctor should ensure that the student is not taking any notes into the bathroom etc. and should wait outside the bathroom to escort the student back to the exam.
Having students leave their belongings, such as notebooks, backpacks, tech devices etc. at the front of the room as they come into the exam is good practice for avoiding any potential cheating.
Perhaps the most traditional way to cheat on an exam is for a student to copy off of his or her neighbour. The easiest way to avoid this is to hand out different versions of the exam, with questions in a different order. Some professors hand these exams out on different coloured sheets of paper to further confuse a student who might like to copy his or her neighbour’s exam.
In large classes, it isn’t always possible to leave spaces in-between each exam-taker. You can, however, shake up the seating arrangement. For example, one common technique is to require students seated in the back few rows to switch with those students seated in the front few rows. This can prove logistically challenging with a large class and a limited amount of time, but if you have a couple of minutes to shake the students up, it can do a lot to prevent exam takers from cheating.
Designing tests can be a time-consuming affair. For that reason, some instructors use the same test questions year after year. While this is tempting, it is not advisable if you hope to prevent cheating. Change exam questions each semester to prevent some students from having an unfair advantage.
Dealing with cheating on papers and assignments
Identifying cheating on papers often requires knowledge of a student’s writing abilities. It’s often when students who really struggle with writing hand in flawless masterpieces that instructors or TAs are tipped off to a student’s dishonest tactics. In large classes, there may not be as good of a sense of your students and their writing, so what can be done to stop plagiarism?
Many students are inexperienced when it comes to citing sources. How do you want them to cite their sources? How thoroughly? Will parenthetical citations suffice? What citation style is preferable? Do you require a bibliography or works cited page? Answer these questions in a handout or in the syllabus.
Western allows instructors to choose whether or not to run student assignments through Turnitin, a tool integrated into OWL’s assignment tool. Turnitin compares student-submitted work to its large collection of published and previously-submitted work to determine the amount of plagiarism. To do so, it generates an "originality report" for each student submission; the report presents instructors with the percentage of unoriginal work contained in the document and links to the potentially plagiarized original work.
One common issue that arises with group work is a misunderstanding about what students can submit. Are they to submit a common assignment whereby they all receive the same grade? Or, as is often the case, are they to submit individual assignments that differ from one another? If they are to submit different work and yet paragraphs are the same on two or more assignments, that is technically plagiarism. To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, be very clear with students about your expectations and the possible consequences if they ignore your requirements.
Western University academic offence policies entail a number of steps that must be followed if a student is suspected of cheating or plagiarism. It is very clearly laid out what the instructor must do if cheating or plagiarism is suspected. The policy for Western University can be reviewed on the University Secretariat website, including procedures for undergraduate students and an accompanying process chart, which is very helpful. You can read more about plagiarism and cheating in the CTL resource on Academic Integrity.
It’s important that you follow the procedures correctly. Particularly before an exam, if you are not clear about the procedures if someone is caught or suspected of cheating during the exam, make sure that you have a chat with the department chair or undergraduate chair so that you know what to do if the situation arises. Similarly, you should familiarize yourself with the procedures for handling a plagiarism case. If suspected plagiarism arises and you are unsure about how to proceed, talk with your chair before you take any action or talk to the student. That way, you can be assured that you are following the correct procedures, which is very important because a charge of cheating or plagiarism can have significant consequences for a student, so needs to be handled well and in accordance with established policies.
Carbone, E.L. (1998). Teaching large classes: Tools and strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching the large college class: A guidebook for instructors with multitudes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Renaud, S., Tannenbaum, E., & Stantial, P. (2007). Student-centered teaching in large classes with limited resources. English Teaching Forum, 3.
Stanley, C.A. & Porter, M.E. (2002). Engaging large classes: Strategies and techniques for college faculty. Boston: Anker Publishing.
If you have further questions about teaching large classes, please contact one of our educational developers.
Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teacher. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cooper, J.L. & Robinson, P. (2000). The Argument for making large classes seem small. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 81: 12.
Crouch, C.H. & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics 69: 970-977.
Weimer, M. (2009). Putting the participation puzzle together. In Tips for encouraging student participation in classroom discussions, Special Report. Faculty Focus. Madison. WI : Magna Publications. Available at https://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/tips-for-encouraging-student-participation-in-classroom-discussions/