- On this page:
- Performing: Keep innovation simple and limited. The logistical complexity of implementing innovative teaching strategies in a large lecture is much greater than in a small class.
- Encouraging activity: Encourage active learning and productive struggle. Studies have shown that requiring students to be active participants in the creation of knowledge, rather than passive receivers, improves learning outcomes.
- Including everyone: Strive, plan and provide opportunities to include everyone. Large classes multiply the opportunities for people to be left out.
Large classes can be more or less performance-based, depending on your comfort and abilities. However, almost all large classes will benefit from a bit of dramatic flair from the instructor. Fortunately, this is a skill that anyone can develop with some basic preparation.
A compelling stage presence can help you command your audience’s attention and deliver an effective presentation
The UW Speaking Center offers coaching on the fundamentals of public speaking, as well as techniques for reducing performance anxiety. Appropriate body language, vocal variety and using large gestures will give you an air of authority and help your students pay attention. Engage with them by moving away from the podium and using the entire stage or front of the room as you’re talking. If the physical plan of the room allows, consider actually walking through the aisles during your presentation or while students are involved in an activity.
Fear of public speaking is very common. However, it can be overcome through practice. The website Write Out Loud has numerous tips for overcoming anxiety, exercises for improving vocal variety, suggestions for incorporating humor and much more. You can even reduce anxiety by “faking” confidence: Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy recently showed that affecting “power poses” increases testosterone and decreases cortisol, helping the power-poser to feel more in control and relaxed. Try standing in a power pose for a few minutes before an anxiety-inducing lecture and you should start to feel calmer.
Create clear narratives across large and small time scales
At the start of the course, lay out how the syllabus is a progression through ideas or from one scale to another. At the beginning and end of each lecture tell the story of what you will cover or have covered. At the end of the course, give students a sense of where they have been and how all the pieces link into a cogent narrative.
Split up theoretical descriptions of concepts with evidence and examples
In the AE (Assert; Evidence) (Alley, 1996) ) model, you assert an idea then give evidence for that idea. In the PEP model (Point, Example, Point) (Ferriss, 2010) you assert the idea, then give an example, then assert the idea again. Both of these models focus on helping students understand concepts through concrete examples. They also provide natural “breaks” between difficult concepts.
Give students chances to formulate questions about the material
Help students ask well-thought-out questions by signaling a question break a few minutes in advance. You can signpost an upcoming question break with language such as: “We have been discussing this topic for awhile and I am curious to know what questions or comments you may have. At the end of the next example, I’ll pause for questions.” This will give the students a chance to formulate meaningful questions and an incentive to pay attention.
You may also consider providing openings for specific types of questions, especially if no one volunteers. For example, “Does anyone have a clarifying question at this point?” or “Does anyone have a response to this in light of what we discussed last time?”
Keep your slides simple but compelling
It’s tempting to think that putting a lot of textual information on your slides will help your students and certainly in technical fields like science and engineering it is important to present precise definitions to avoid the development of misconceptions. But as much as possible, try to assert key ideas with minimal text and employ graphics to support the ideas. This is also a good way to reach out to English Language Learners or dyslexic students.
Get remote control of your slides
Sometimes, the best technologies are the simplest ones – iSchool Dean Emeritus Mike Eisenberg uses a lot of technology – but his favorite may be a remote that allows him to wander the classroom while controlling his slides. Today, there are several good, inexpensive options for simple USB-based remotes to control slides and most of them also contain a laser pointer. There are also an increasing number of free or inexpensive smartphone apps which accomplish the same purpose. Which apps are best for you will depend upon your phone and your needs, but should require a minimum of research to discover.
Music at the beginning and end of a class can help create a mood
Something as simple as music at the beginning and end of class can set the students’ mood and make it easier for them to approach you. This is also a good way to test the sound and projector before you start.
If you record video lectures remember that you are performing there as well
The techniques of good presenting also apply to lectures you record yourself, and may in fact be even more important. In person, you have the opportunity to read the audience and modify your approach if the students seem lost or bored. You don’t have this feedback in a recorded lecture so you need to anticipate where confusion may arise and plan your explanation accordingly. Vocal variety is also very important, especially if you are only recording your voice.
Lastly relax – before, during and after the lecture
All of our FPLC participants said they find teaching large classes exhausting, whether they enjoy them or not. We all recommend not scheduling meetings before or after large class lectures if at all possible.
- UW Speaking Center
- A short video from Western Washington University, on one professors’ experience of teaching as performance.
- Dugdale, S. (2014) Write Out Loud.
- Podcast on the National Public Radio broadcast clock
- Guide to Visual Thinking from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching
- Horning, A. Teaching as Performance (1979). The Journal of General Education, Vol. 31, No. 3 pp. 185-194, Penn State University Press Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27796766
- Hanover Research’s Strategies for Teaching Large Undergraduate Classes.
- Alley, M. (1996). The craft of scientific writing. New York: Springer. Retrieved from http://writing.engr.psu.edu/slides.html
- Ferriss, T. (2010). Public Speaking – How I Prepare Every Time. The Blog of Tim Ferriss.
- Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Sousa, D. A. (2012). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.
- Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
- Venton, D. (2012, May 15) Power postures can make you feel more powerful. Wired Magazine.
Why encourage activity in a large lecture? A recent meta-analysis conducted by a team in UW Biology found that students in the sciences definitely increased in grade (and decreased drop-out) in active learning classes (Freeman et al., 2014). The activities you choose can have different goals. Summative goals evaluate a student, formative goals monitor and provide feedback during the process of learning. For more information, see the CTL’s page on promoting active learning.
Explicitly state the goals of the activities and assignments at the beginning of the course, to get students “on board”
Students, especially in a large-lecture course, will most likely resist in-class activities unless it is clear that they will benefit in a meaningful way. Explain the meta-cognitive outcomes that you expect.
Apply different types of assessments
A number of large-course instructors find classroom response systems particularly useful in formative evaluation of group work, providing students feedback on the “answers” they arrive at through group discussion. Likewise, other faculty will use automated or pre-created quizzing tools to encourage students to work together to answer problems – and then provide formative feedback on their answers.
Group activities/assignments should be designed very carefully
Encouraging students to actually do thinking and not just physical activity can be difficult. Other instructors have found it particularly helpful to give groups an engaging problem to work on, or require them to make a difficult decision. UW Instructor Lekelia Jenkins in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs encourages her students to struggle over the moral implications of questions in the field. Many instructors also find it difficult but beneficial to encourage students to take a position, even if that position may be wrong. This allows the students to create a context for future correction and helps the instructor understand what the misconceptions are (Jacobs and Loh, 2003). However, this can be challenging as teachers love to provide answers.
Note that norms for what constitutes “working together” in some cultures can appear to U.S. eyes as academic misconduct and plagiarism. Be explicit about what you expect from group work and make sure that your message gets across to all students.
Many of our instructors made group assignments formative and low stakes so that the penalty for any good member of a dysfunctional group is minimized.
Create opportunities for multiple reviews from you and classmates to maximize feedback
More and more options are becoming available for peer review. UW Seattle lecturer Colleen Craig divides students into groups and asks them to describe their processes for solving problems to each other for quick, in-person feedback. Other instructors use the peer review tools in Canvas to divide up peer reviews automatically across students or use other tools and connected apps (like Turnitin and SWORD) to enable anonymous and even double-blind peer review. Rachel Chichowski’s workflow, described in the sidebar, allows for multiple stages of feedback from the instructor in one cohesive project.
Make activity social
Many UW instructors make activity more effective by engaging students with each other, even in large classes. Colleen Craig and AJ Boydston require students to describe their reasoning to each other and critique each others’ responses. Scott Freeman, Ben Wiggins, and others in UW Biology take this one step further by requiring groups to come to an agreement and vote together with their Classroom Response Systems (Clickers).
Sometimes the simple solutions are best
“If there is a problem with teaching that cannot be solved with Think-Pair-Share, I haven’t found it yet.” – Matt McGarrity
- UW CTL page on active learning
- Group Work that Works (Michael Sweet for the Chronicle of Higher Education) . This article discusses a number of group work principles and techniques, including giving the student a significant, specific problem, giving them all the same problem, and helping them to share out simultaneously so that there can be a diversity of voices throughout the room.
- Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI 10.1073/pnas.1319030111
- Jacobs, G. M., and Loh, W. I. (2003). Using cooperative learning in large classes. In M. Cherian and R. Mau (Eds.), Large classes (pp. 142-157). Singapore: McGraw-Hill. A great resource, feel free to, as with technology, pick one experiment to try.
A class is a society, in which students not only learn content but are enculturated to the field of study (Packer and Goicoechea, 2000). Try to understand the context in which the students are experiencing your class. In a large lecture, it’s likely you have a very diverse collection of students, in terms of racial/ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, country of origin, comfort with the English language, able-bodiedness, socioeconomic background and educational background (Armstrong, 2011).
Make an effort to create an inclusive, supportive environment
Try to avoid turns of phrase or anecdotes that may confuse or alienate members of a certain group, even if that is not your intention. It may be natural for you to use a pop-culture reference to illustrate a point, but students from other cultures may not know what you’re talking about. Gender-specific language that is not necessary to the class content is also best avoided. Of course, no instructor is perfect, and occasionally you may say or do something that could be misinterpreted. The important thing is to be mindful of how your language may be received by students whose backgrounds differ from yours. Consult the CTL’s Inclusive teaching page to find resources for promoting an inclusive classroom.
Create opportunities for an active, anonymous voice
Giving students a chance to respond anonymously through technology enables students who are uncomfortable or unable to respond. In-person anonymous feedback can be enabled through Classroom/Audience Response Systems (Clickers). Asynchronous anonymous feedback can be as simple as an anonymous Canvas or Catalyst survey. Either one can give the chance for students to reveal misunderstandings they might not reveal otherwise.
Asynchronous but not anonymous, and slightly more complex technology solutions like Piazza include the ability for other students to “upvote” or raise the visibility of questions they also have or responses they think particularly pertinent. UW Professor Ben Marwick has used Disqus for free – but it does require significantly more technical expertise to set up. On the simpler side, tools like Canvas’ chat have been used to create a “backchannel” where questions can be checked during break and where students can answer each other’s questions during class.
Lecture capture is a particularly useful technology for including all students
Students from English Language Learner backgrounds particularly benefit from lecture capture, as it allows them to review any points where they are confused. While the technology is a particular benefit to English Language Learners, most students appreciate lecture capture for study and review.
Don’t underestimate the power of personal connection
Simple exercises and questions can encourage students to make meaning for themselves. Questions like “What surprised you” or “What did you find most interesting” “What did you find most confusing” or even “Do you have any experience with this in your life” helps students to learn the intersections between their own life and their academic learning.
Don’t forget to reach out to top-performing students as well
Top-performing students can also struggle to be included. This Encouraging Top Students in Large Lecture Classes video addresses solutions used at Stanford to encourage top students. Our participants also found this article from Scholastic helpful, though it is focused on K-12.
- Inclusive teaching at UW
- Discussion and commenting tool Disqus
- Resources on teaching from Scholastic:
- Carnegie Mellon University’s Best Practices for Teaching First-Year Undergraduates
- Roberts, E. (1997) Encouraging top students in large undergraduate classes. Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 1-2, Stanford University.
- Solve a Teaching Problem (Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University)
- Armstong, A. (2011) Small world: Crafting an inclusive classroom (no matter what you teach). Thought & Action, Fall 2011, pp. 51-61, National Education Association.
- Packer, M., Goicoechea, J. (2000) Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: ontology, not just epistemology. Educational psychologist, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 227-241, Routledge.