Large lecture classes are a reality at most higher education institutions. Institutions, in response to budget restrictions and rising enrollments, have had to increase student-teacher ratios. And educators have, as a result, had to adapt to these changing environments.
This makes for quite the challenge, as pedagogy is mostly centered around smaller scale teaching environments and the strengths of smaller classrooms (for example, learning everyone’s name quickly!) cannot always be mirrored in a large class.
For many students, it can be shocking to enter a lecture hall filled with one hundred other students, let alone seven hundred other students in an overflowing auditorium, such as in this scenario (or this). It’s an odd feeling for students to go from an intimate high school classroom to a situation where they become one in a sea of faces--where if they don’t attend lectures, they feel they’ll hardly be missed. And this puts at-risk students in jeopardy.
Getting lost in a large lecture course may threaten a student’s sense of belonging, critical in a student’s first year at a higher education institution. In sum, even though strong faculty-student relationships are a predictor of student engagement, large lecture classes make meaningful connections an outlier.
Speaking of first-year students: many large lecture courses also happen to be introductory courses--which means they’re populated by first- and second-year students unfamiliar with such a format (and the necessary learning strategies).
Despite the above challenges, all is not so grim! And educators, always at the forefront of learning on the ground in classrooms, are innovating pedagogy and implementing new teaching methodologies in large scale settings.
So how can instructors enact best practices in large scale lecture courses? How can instructors reach every student and make sure to support learning in such an environment? What are best practices in large lecture class pedagogy?
- Before the first class, send an email to students introducing yourself, perhaps with your goals and passion with regards to the subject matter.
- Ask/assign students very early on in the course to send you emails with questions about the subject matter, as well as their goals for taking the class. This will make students feel seen, and also help you keep in mind the context for your students’ learning. You may not remember every single response, but it’s likely you’ll get an idea of patterns and trends in student motivations. For extra impact, you might want to integrate references to your students’ responses in your lecture, by saying things like “For many of you who enrolled in this course [for a specific reason], this may be particularly relevant,” as Director of the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research at Virginia Tech Peter Doolittle, shares.
- Keep in mind your audience. In many ways, lecturing a large class is a performance. Move around on stage and make eye contact. In a large lecture exceeding two hundred students, this may be daunting--but if you’re looking at the exit sign at the back of the class, the timbre of your lecture will likely be informed not by connection but by escape.
- Enable mentorship in smaller discussion or recitation. It may feel impossible to provide mentorship to all your students, but it is possible to incorporate best practices into discussion sections. In a study on large lecture pedagogy and mentorship within discussion sections, Singer-Freeman and Bastone found “that students did view the teaching assistants as mentors, with 81% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the mentors provided academic support, 77% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the mentors were role models, and 70% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the mentors provided emotional and psychological support.”
- Activate exercises in your lectures. In a typical lecture, learning typifies the banking model of education, whereby students are containers into which educators direct information. This is, to put it frankly, boring for students; research says attention starts to fade after 20 minutes. Consider in-class polling. Break up your lecture to balance student-teacher interaction and to keep attention, rapt. Consider small group exercises (yes, they’re possible in large lectures). UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning has several excellent suggestions on how to engage active learning within lecture formats.
- Examine and possibly warm up the tone of your syllabus which, in a large lecture class, can take on a higher stakes role in faculty-student communication. Another is to have students pass index cards with questions to you at the end of the first lecture.
- Re-examine your assessment. Is there a formative assessment within your course curriculum? Or is it largely summative and in the form of multiple-choice exams? Are your multiple-choice exams designed in such a way to differentiate students with mastery from students who are struggling? Is there a way for you to know if your students have conceptual mastery? Is there an opportunity for students to receive feedback? Not all assignments have to have a grade, but students must receive formative feedback, and instructors, insight into student learning.
The bottom line: pedagogy best practices haven’t changed in large lectures. What is different are the ways in which formative assessment, strong faculty-student relationships, mentorship, and active learning are achieved. You may not be able to greet every student coming into class and you may not be able to learn all their names--but you can still open the door into your classroom and make them feel seen and heard.