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Developing a course

Teaching a class of 100+ students is as much about management and endurance as it is about pedagogy. It is very easy to wear yourself out by committing to innovative teaching methods or technologies that end up being far more difficult to implement in a large lecture than a small one. The first time through, it’s best to keep your course delivery straightforward – even sticking to an all-lecture format – so you can get used to the unique pressures of the 100+ to 1 ratio, which can include: several student emails per day, many of which ask the exact same question; managing anywhere from two to twenty TAs, who differ in their attention to detail and their experience with teaching; writing exams that are absolutely free of errors or ambiguous language, since the tight quarters in most large lecture halls make it physically difficult to answer student questions during the exam; and the need to throw an incredible amount of energy into each class to engage your students.

If you are teaching a large-lecture course for the first time, don’t get too creative

If you have a colleague who has taught your course before, ask them if you can use their materials as a template for your own course, or check out the open-source courseware offered by institutions such as MIT, Yale and the Open Education Consortium. Many publishers also offer instructors lecture note templates and test banks based on the textbook, which you can usually access through the publisher’s website. Or try Google…you may find an instructor at another university who has made their course materials publicly available.

A set of meaningful learning goals will help you design effective assignments and assessments

What is a “learning goal?” Simply put, a learning goal is something that you want your students to be able to do after completing your course. Note that this is different from simply stating the topics you will cover. Although the goals themselves will depend on what course you are teaching, effective learning goals will tend to use active terms with very specific meanings, for example:

  • Analyze
  • Design
  • Organize
  • Differentiate
  • Explain

The specificity of these terms enables the design of assessments that can actually measure whether the learning goal was achieved.

Contrast these with terms such as “to learn,” “to master” and “to know,” which are very tempting to use when writing learning goals (what instructor doesn’t want their students to learn, master, and know the course material?). These terms are much less specific, and are open to a wide range of interpretations, making the design of assessments that measure student progress much more difficult.

Innovate incrementally

Active learning methods, which require the learner to interact with the material and other students during class, have been shown to increase student performance and decrease withdrawal and failure rates (Freeman et al., 2014). Taking the time to incorporate non-lecture teaching strategies such as Flipping the Classroom or Clicker Polls into your large-lecture classes will be a benefit to your students. However, planning and implementing such techniques requires a great deal of effort and support in a large lecture class and is best achieved by introducing only one new technique each time you teach the course.

UW Seattle lecturer Scott Freeman regularly teaches a flipped version of Introductory Biology to 700 students. During class, his students work on group activities punctuated by Clicker quizzes and class-wide discussions. TAs roam the lecture hall to answer questions and keep students on track. But as Scott will point out, this highly structured and active class was developed over the course of several years and there were plenty of adjustments and refinements along the way before he arrived at the current format.

Make plans that engage your TAs wisely

Your TAs are a limited resource — the current UW Academic Student Employee Union contract stipulates that TAs may work a maximum of 220 hours in a quarter and an average of 20 hours per week (University of Washington and UAW Local 4121, 2011) (, so make sure to arrange your TAs’ workloads appropriately. Note that requiring TAs to attend your class counts as part of their 20 hours per week.

UW instructors typically ask TAs to complete a number of tasks, which may include:

  • Clicker, quiz and exam grading
  • In-class and outside-of-class discussion groups
  • On-line discussion forums
  • In-class “backchannel” chat moderators
  • Setting up and maintaining course websites and LMS pages

Each of these will pose different workloads for the TAs and require different amounts of direction and support from you. You may need several quarters to discover what role TAs best play in your course and with your teaching style, but it’s never too early to start thinking about it.

The most important thing: Be very clear from the beginning about what you expect from your TAs and be willing to help them meet your goals. Most of your TAs, especially if they are entering graduate students, will probably not have had much experience teaching and they may be terrified at the prospect (although they probably won’t admit it to you!). Take some time to craft lesson plans for your TAs’ discussion sections, and use your weekly TA meeting to go through them in detail. This will help reduce TA anxiety and ensure a consistent course delivery across TA sections. Also, invite questions and feedback from your TAs and try to incorporate their suggestions as appropriate.

Do your best not to deviate from your TA expectations without ample warning and explanation. This will give your TAs a chance to plan their research activities around their TA responsibilities. It’s also a good idea to ask your TAs before the beginning of the course if any of them have oral exams or conference travel scheduled, so you can plan accordingly.

A bit of organization can help you avoid being overwhelmed by student emails

One approach is to tell students that you will only answer course-related questions if they are posted to the Canvas Discussion Board (but they can email you if they need to make an appointment to see you or have a private matter to discuss). You can set up your communication preferences in Canvas to alert you each time a new Discussion thread is posted. You can also enlist your TAs to monitor the board on a rotating basis. UW Seattle Professor AJ Boydston tells his students that if another student doesn’t answer their question within a day or so, he will answer it in a reply to their post.

UW Seattle Lecturer Jasmine Bryant created a “shared” UW NetID just for student emails to keep teaching and non-teaching inboxes separate. She includes a signature line that lists her office hours for the quarter, and during the first few weeks of the quarter she sets up an auto-response with answers to common student questions.

Since Canvas pages are available only to enrolled students, consider creating a public faculty website dedicated to teaching and include a link on your department’s website. This website can include your upcoming teaching schedule, answers to common student questions, course-specific links and resources, an archive of past syllabi, etc. Jasmine Bryant recommends the UW WordPress Blogs Network:

  1. Go to “Manage UW NetID”:
  2. Click on “Computing Services”
  3. Select “WordPress Network Blog” under Inactive Services, then click “Subscribe”
  4. You’ll receive an email at your UWNetID address with information about how to log in to your blog.
More to explore

Building a syllabus

The CTL’s course design page also contains advice for constructing a syllabus (, which applies to any size course. However, since there are few opportunities in a large lecture for direct communication between you and individual students, the syllabus serves as an important reference guide to your course. Therefore, it’s crucial for this document to be as clear, unambiguous and unchanging as possible.

What should a syllabus include?

A typical syllabus should include a mixture of informational, contractual and tentative items.

  • Informational: contact information for you and your TAs, course goals/learning goals, description of assignments, activities
  • Contractual: course and department policies, exam dates, assignment due dates, grading breakdown
  • Tentative: reading assignments, lecture schedule

What is a syllabus for?

During your course, the syllabus is primarily a reference for your students, where they can find answers basic questions about course learning goals and organization. But it will also serve as an archival record of the course you taught. In addition to your course-specific learning goals, take some time to describe the specific topics covered in language that someone unfamiliar with the course will understand. This is especially important if you are not using a traditional textbook in your course. Students who transfer schools or apply to graduate or professional school will often need to provide syllabi for certain courses, so it is helpful for them to show a list of topics.

Note that the syllabus lives longer than the course. Therefore, it should be available to students long after the course is complete as a PDF on a public website, not just on your course Canvas page.

Tone matters

The tone of your syllabus (“cold” vs. “warm”) can impact the impression students have of you. Since positive student impressions of the instructor can positively impact instructor course evaluations and student impressions of their own learning, it is worth the effort to craft a syllabus with a welcoming tone.

Go electronic

It’s not practical or cost effective to provide a paper copy of syllabus for a large class…employ a webpage to relay this document. Students can choose to print their own hard copies if they so desire.

Encourage students to first consult your syllabus if they have any questions about the course

The syllabus for a large-lecture course is often painstakingly assembled, with commonly-asked questions anticipated and answered, course assignments and assessments carefully scheduled at key points during the course delivery, and grading breakdown deeply considered. Therefore, it can be frustrating when students ask questions they could easily answer themselves by reading the syllabus.

Consider assigning a quiz over the syllabus content. You can make this quiz part of their course grade or you can organize your Canvas page using Modules so that students cannot access the rest of the website until they pass the syllabus quiz. Contact UW-IT ( for help setting up Modules in your Canvas page.

If at all possible do not make any changes to the syllabus once the course begins

Large-lecture courses need a syllabus and course schedule that is more “nailed down” before the quarter begins than do smaller courses. The larger the number of students in the course, the more chances there are for misunderstandings to arise if the course schedule or policies are altered mid-quarter. In addition students who may need special accommodations will appreciate having plenty of time to make arrangements (for more information see: Disability Resources for Students (DRS) Service Request Timelines). In all cases, it’s best to decide on a plan before the course begins, and stick to it until the course ends. However, do make a note of any awkward scheduling issues, difficult-to-enforce policies or assessments, etc. You can rethink them the next time you teach the class.

If you must make a change however, give students as much notice as possible and communicate the change in all possible venues: announcements in class, on the website, via email, TA discussion section, etc. This is especially important for changes to exam dates or assignment due dates. Also, be prepared to accommodate students who may have scheduled events or DRS accommodations according to your original syllabus that may now conflict with your new schedule.

More to explore

Reaching out to your student audience

Being a student in a large-lecture course can be a profoundly depersonalizing experience, though it doesn’t need to be. As the instructor, you have an opportunity to reach out to your students and let them know that you care.

Intentionally humanize yourself to your students

UW American Ethnic Studies professor LaShawnDa Pittman includes “get to know my students” as an explicit learning goal in her syllabus and she arrives to each class a few minutes early to strike up conversations with students who are present. It is also powerful to explicitly connect yourself to your study of the material when you were a student. When he teaches organic chemistry, Chemistry professor AJ Boydston tells stories about the first reactions he ever performed as an organic chemist, and about how he is now colleagues with an organic chemist whose work he learned about when he was a student.

Don’t be afraid to be silly. Chemistry Lecturer Colleen Craig has never met a bad science pun she doesn’t like, even if her students audibly groan when she shares them in class. She has also been known to impersonate a water molecule in class to demonstrate molecular kinetic energy…a topic that could easily be communicated with a YouTube video, but the students find it entertaining when she makes herself dizzy.

Take your students’ humanity seriously as well

Try to learn as many names as you can. AJ Boydston refers to his visual class list on MyUW whenever he gets a student email or sees a new Discussion Board post. He also brings a hardcopy of the visual class list to class and office hours and makes a note of students who ask questions. Using these techniques, AJ says he is able to learn the names of about half of his 400-person class by the end of the quarter.

When her schedule allows, Communications professor Katy Pearce likes to teach one of her discussion sections each week in place of her TA. This gives her a chance to facilitate more intimate discussions and get to know individual students.