Large Classes: Teaching Tips
Even though there are significantly more students to manage in large courses, the following tips can help you provide opportunities for students to engage with the material in meaningful ways, build community, and improve communication.
Build Community in Large Classes
To build community in large classes, it's helpful to show that you're interested and that you care about your students’ success.
Strategies to help personalize your class
- On the first day, share a few things about yourself to help your students get to know you. For example:
- Why you chose this field
- What you study with your research
- Something that really interests you about the topic of the class
- Survey your students, then share themes and interesting responses with the class. For example, you can ask them about:
- Their favorite activities
- What they’re excited about learning in your class
- Anything about your class that they might be concerned or worried about
- Move around the room as you lecture if you have a portable microphone. Move closer to students when they ask a question.
- Learn names or ask students to make paper name tents. Ask students to share their name each time they respond to a question and make a point of calling them by name. Even if you don’t learn all of them, students will appreciate your effort.
- Show students you care about their learning experience by soliciting their feedback. For example, you can try offering a simple 3-question survey asking them what’s been most helpful, what they’re finding challenging and what changes would improve their learning. Afterwards, share common themes and let them know what changes you can make or explain your reasoning if some changes are not feasible.
- Regularly remind them about office hours, your willingness to help, and other support available to them. Remember that not all students know what office hours are and it helps to explain the term. Share resources provided by the Learning Strategies Center that can help your students learn.
Help Students Connect with Each Other
Being a student in a large class can be an alienating experience, particularly for students who are new to campus. Fostering a sense of community by helping students connect with each other and potentially make friends can have a positive impact on your class.
Strategies to encourage student connection
- Use a discussion question on the first day to get students talking with others nearby or their assigned group.
- Make the class feel friendly and welcoming by asking them to introduce themselves to the students next to them each class.
- Suggest that they exchange contact information with the students they sit near in case they miss a class.
- Pose a question to students and ask them to discuss it for a few minutes with another student sitting near them (think-pair-share). When using pair or small group activities, remind them to include students nearby who might be sitting alone and to introduce themselves.
- Group work with 2-5 students is possible even in large lecture halls and can help students connect with their peers as well as process and practice what they are learning.
- Consider assigning students to permanent small groups to sit together during class and work together on group activities or projects. Belonging to a small group can help a large class feel smaller and more friendly. For the first few class sessions, you will need to show a seating chart or map on the screen so that student groups can find each other and sit together.
- Encourage students to use their groups, either assigned or based on proximity, for studying outside of class.
Support Student Learning with Structure and Practice
Two important ways you can support your students’ learning in a large class are to have a clear course structure with established routines and use active learning strategies, including checking regularly for understanding. Having routines helps students remember what they need to do, when, and how, while active learning helps them engage with the material and learn it better.
Strategies to support student learning with structure and practice
- Create a predictable and consistent class structure so that students know what to expect and can fall into a rhythm (e.g., quiz on Mondays, polling questions each class, homework due before discussion section). Routines can be especially helpful in large classes to more easily transition in and out of activities and to avoid confusion in communication.
- Communicate your expectations about attendance, class participation, respectful interaction, etc. on the first day of class (and in your syllabus) and remind students throughout the semester.
- Consider breaking up the lecture every 10-20 minutes with a polling question or an activity related to the content. You can use activities to verify their understanding of a topic, provide an opportunity for practice, and check for confidence in their understanding (e.g., I've got it, I kind of have it, I'm lost).
- If you’re concerned about the transition back to lecture after an activity, use a sound such as a chime or a countdown timer on your slide to make the timing clear.
- Ask students to submit questions or comments at the end of class in Canvas or through Poll Everywhere. Answer a few of their questions at the beginning of the next class.
Simplify Assessment & Grading
While the thought of grading for a large class may feel daunting, it can be made more manageable with attention to the type and frequency of assignments and quizzes, grading policies, rubrics, and help from your TAs.
Strategies to simplify assessment & grading
- Review your assignments and assessments to determine which ones are most impactful for students and are closely aligned with the learning outcomes. When is feedback from the instructor most helpful for students? See if you can focus your grading efforts on assignments or assessments with the largest impact and reduce the numbers or grading load of other assignments or assessments.
- Consider whether an assignment can be shortened or modified, while still achieving the learning outcomes (e.g. writing up the data and results section of a paper, instead of the entire paper, asking students to create a poster or infographic instead of a long paper).
- Have students work together in groups or pairs on assignments. Collaboration can benefit the students and also reduces the number of assignments to grade.
- Use low-stakes, formative assessments such as PollEverywhere questions or Canvas quizzes that can be auto-graded, graded S/U, or counted as participation. See the instructions on Getting Started with Poll Everywhere. If you’d like to see some ideas for using polling in your classroom, review Classroom polling ideas to engage students.
- Introduce brief in-class assignments that are either ungraded, graded S/U, or counted as participation
- Consider whether asking students to provide peer feedback would be useful for some stages or types of assignments. Using technology like FeedbackFruits may help and save time on managing multi-step peer review processes. See examples of use cases from Cornell faculty.
- Use detailed rubrics that clearly outline your expectations for projects and written work. Rubrics also reduce the need for comments. How to set up Canvas rubrics.
- Keep a bank of commonly used comments that you can copy and paste.
- Consider offering feedback on only certain aspects of assignments (e.g. feedback on the use of sources or data to support an argument, instead of correcting every grammar mistake).
- Consider using grading software such as Gradescope, especially if coordinating the grading among multiple TA’s
- Keep track of grading hours and adjust as needed to ensure you're allocating your time effectively considering the weight of the assignments
- If TAs are grading, discuss issues that come up and promote consistency (especially with rubrics). Share and comment on examples of excellent, fair, and poor submissions. Divide exams so that each TA grades a specific section.
Manage Logistics & Communication
Clear communication with your students, teaching assistants and course administrators can bolster attendance and create structure and transparency for everything from email response time to grading practices.
Below are some simple strategies to try.
- Use a microphone if available
- Clearly communicate course policies at the beginning of the semester and in the syllabus. Remind students at key points in the semester.
- Provide clear and frequent (weekly) communication through Canvas reminding students of upcoming assignments, quizzes, and activities.
- Organize your Canvas site so that students can find the information they need quickly.
- Make sure that the entire teaching team is communicating the same policies. Students become frustrated if there is inconsistency among co-instructors or TAs.
- Consider setting up a separate course email account that TAs or course administrators can manage and alert you to messages that are not straightforward to answer.
- Ask students to include the course number in the subject line.
- Be up front about how often you will check and respond.
- Establish guidelines about where different types of questions should be directed and how. The Ed Discussion tool available in Canvas is a great space for general Q&A.
- How many hours before an exam or project due date will you stop responding?
- Use calendaring software like Calendly to help manage your appointments.
There are several ways to encourage regular attendance:
- In-class activities, polling questions, problem-solving, or discussions that students feel are valuable and interesting will encourage regular attendance
- In-class assignments or activities that are collected in-person or submitted online (e.g. taking a photo of a worksheet and submitting it through Canvas)
- Post-lecture quizzes taken online in Canvas, which also encourage students to process what they are learning and check their understanding.
Grading Requests and Concerns
- Outline the process for re-grading requests in your syllabus
- Require that requests be submitted in writing
- Build in a cooling off period by requiring students to wait 24 hours before submitting.
Working with Teaching Assistants
- Consider asking TAs to take the TA Online Orientation course through CTI.
- Set clear expectations about the kind of support your TAs should provide and how they should interact with students.
- Provide regular feedback. Consider observing their sections or labs at least once a semester or set up a peer observation program.
- Invite their input and ideas and consider ways to involve them in activity design
- Meet on a regular schedule - weekly meetings work well.
- Keep the lines of communication open.