Some strategies for a teaching a very large class

I have only had a few semesters of experience with teaching a class of 250+ students, but already I have seen a good deal of what works and what doesn’t.  My hope in this post is to share some of my experiences, both good and bad, with other instructors in similar situations.

First of all, the students need to feel like their contributions, amongst the masses, are important.  Although a large class allows the instructor to reach a large number of students, it is important that each student have a voice.  In my course, we have had the benefit of 14 graduate teaching assistants, and been able to break the students into smaller groups that get regular interactions with the TA’s.  This has proven invaluable to engage the students, and attendance records alone show how much the students value these smaller groups: the attendance in smaller groups was far higher than in the full-class gatherings, even though both were “required”.

In the full-class gatherings, it is very easy for a student to disappear if they so choose, and so it is important to try to address this before it becomes an issue.  One of the first things that can be done is to incentivise attendance–either through quizzes, sign-in sheets, etc.  But you also need to make sure that these full-class gatherings are worthwhile to the students.

Once the students are regularly attending the full-class gatherings, it is necessary to engage them individually.  Techniques like think-pair-share can do wonders, and think-pair-share often works really well after asking the class a question that no one has the answer to, or after polling the class.  Giving the students the opportunity to talk amongst themselves does a lot to keep the class energetic, and it is almost never an issue to get the students back on track afterwards.  It also tends to help to provide the students some active way of engaging during the lecture, something like having them fill in portions of the notes instead of just allowing them to sit and watch the lecture unfold before them.

All of that said, large classes are still a challenge.  The lack of a personal connection between the students and instructor allow for anonymity on the part of the students, and the instructor can begin to be thought of in the same way that TV actors are–a distant individual whose role is primarily entertainment.

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