Teaching Tips for Large Classes – The Big Class Project
Large classes may have some unique challenges for you and your students. What follows are some points you may want to consider:
In large classes, the sheer number of course participants will ensure that you are delivering a message to a mixed audience. Some students in your course will be hearing about your subject for the first time. Others may have covered parts of it in an advanced high-school class. Large courses are often the gateway to a discipline, and everyone deserves a chance to come away with the basics. You may find individuals in the same class feeling under-challenged while others are overwhelmed. What can you do to keep everyone learning?
People like to play. Introducing “gaming” concepts in the curriculum is one way to provide different levels and challenges to students at a pace they find exciting. High-achievers might be able to unlock more advanced levels of material, while those who are new to the subject can repeat exercises to gain proficiency, and move on more rapidly in the curriculum. Small encouragements, such as “badges,” are commonplace in games, and even such a token reward can result in learner satisfaction. One way to making a multi-level approach to your course easy to implement is to make exercises that are self-grading and low-stakes, repeatable, with instant feedback, to reinforce learning. (The publisher of your textbook may provide such tools online; there may be repositories of foundational concepts for your disicpline). Other options for self-graded assessment might be quizzes or flash cards, or even more deliberate gaming-style exercises. Blackboard , for instance, has tools that will allow students to see certain materials on the basis of previous performance, a process tcalled “adaptive release.” You can design the reward and feedback structure to let your students know how well they are learning.
Mix up your curricular materials – written text, diagrams, video and audio — approaching a difficult concept in a new medium can cause an “aha!” moment for a student when the meaning finally becomes clear. You can build these mixed-media learning objects gradually over time, since many foundational courses contain material that does not change with great frequency. In the same vein, vary assignments so that everyone gets pushed out of their comfort zone on some task. For example, one student might transfer new knowledge by using a familiar form of expression, such as drawing, while another student not used to drawing may see well-learned material from a different perspective.
Make sure that high-stakes assessments, such as exams, are fair to all participants, and use other means to award the high-achievers. Your best-performing student is not necessarily your most successful teaching story.
In large classes, students may feel increasingly passive, even invisible, as enrollment and classroom size increases. How can you wake up the dreamer in class, and derail the obsessive note-taker, both of whom might not be actively listening to the lecture?
Clickers, pop quizzes, videos, or live demonstrations can all be used as a way to redirect attention. Stop occasionally during lectures to assess understanding. Short, impromptu, one-on-one discussions among students can help to clear confusion, and inject energy into a room. This can work well, for example, after a clicker exercise that reveals misunderstanding. Invite students in neighboring seats to explain their answers to each other. (If you repeat the clicker vote after such an exercise, you will often see an abrupt increase in the correct response.) Don’t have equipment for assessment? Ask people to gesture in a similar conspicuous way, for example, “touch your chin with one finger if you don’t understand; two fingers if you think you understand, and three fingers if you’ve completely clear on the concept.”
Find ways to collect anonymous feedback. Course back-channels, either live in the room, or on a discussion feed, can allow people to comment on course content as it happens. If you are comfortable adjusting lecture content to immediate feedback, and can tolerate the course-related distraction, a large class can let you know there’s a problem of understanding when you are in a position to fix it–in the lecture hall. This exercise can also result in clarification being provided by other student responses. If you aren’t comfortable doing this in class, consider an online forum for such feedback, one that you or your instructional staff can monitor. There are some examples of this described in the next point.
A course website can simplify tasks of organizing your course documents, and allowing students to submit work, and even do some randomized, anonymized, peer-grading. Most learning management systems, Blackboard, for instance, have ways to streamline the asking of questions and permit peer-to-peer discussions that can be moderated by the instructor or A.I. A good tool for this is Piazza, a question asking-and-ranking-tool that can be integrated with Blackboard. Piazza allows instructional staff to provide or approve answers to questions, and allows the students to indicate the questions they most want answered. Logs of Piazza sessions can provide a welcome review and study guide.
Do a quick poll at the beginning or end of class to see how students are retaining material from previous lessons, or what they may have learned from the present lecture. It will help them make a study plan, and let you know where you need to spend more or less time.
Large classes will inevitably present you with students who are diverse: culturally, physically, and in their educational experiences. How can you vary your teaching to engage everyone? You might try various means of delivery. Varying the types of assessments and assignments and curricular materials can help overcome minor difficulties in understanding.
This may seem obvious, but how many of your curricular materials are truly digital? Avoid PDFs scanned as images — even plain text can provide more flexibility. Materials that are machine-readable are far more important in this regard than those that are attractive. Machine-readable versions of the lecture materials can assist with refining notes, and can easily be translated, enlarged, or machine-spoken, allowing for various learning needs. Audio and visual materials may make course concepts clear at a glance — adding alt-tags, descriptive text, and closed-captions can make them accessible to everyone. Allowing students to transform the course materials in various ways can help everyone learn better, and gives each student more control in designing a learning strategy.
Being flexible about some of the course assignments, for instance alternating written work with a video assignment or a diagram or info-graphic, can help students apply previously acquired knowledge to new content, and help them transfer learning skills from one discipline to another. Changing up assignment types can also level the playing field in a class where students are coming from different educational experiences.
Large lecture halls may have architectural challenges. Class late-comers might, by necessity, have to sit in a seat where their view of the projection screen is not the best. Poor acoustics can limit understanding – particularly for non-native speakers or those who have difficulty hearing. How can you overcome the physical and technical challenges in a classroom that may have been designed for a different type—perhaps even a different century–of teaching?
Every discipline has its own vocabulary, some of which will be unfamiliar to students. Make sure they know what you are saying. Look into forms of voice amplification if the room is not already equipped with a sound system. If you, as lecturer, like to walk around, draw on the board, or do other things that would move you away from the podium or turn your back to the audience, ask if there is a wearable form of amplification. If you have a soft voice, amplification can save you the stress of having to speak outside of your natural range. Consider a lecture-capture solution if the acoustic problems are particularly bad – it’s also a great way to allow students to review content they may have missed or misheard.
Post your course materials to the course website just before class, so that students can follow your visuals on their own screens or printouts. If this is not practical, post copies of your slides or course notes to the website just after class, while student memory is fresh.
Look into tools such as tablet computers, or effective uses of pens in PowerPoint, so that you can combine your presentation with gestures and written notes — this will give your students some hints to what is important to the topic. Share the annotations via the course website.
If budget allows, ask if the room can have several screens, or an expanded speaker system. This way, unfortunate architectural features can be mitigated by moving copies of the central content closer to learners.
Need more help with your big class? Return to the McGraw Center’s Big Class Project page.