Teaching Large College Classes With a Smile

Tricks to effectively teach in the big lecture halls.

Posted May 04, 2017

In my 20+ years of teaching, I have taught all kinds of classes of all kinds of sizes.

Nikolayhg / Pixabay
Source: Nikolayhg / Pixabay

At SUNY New Paltz, we are fortunate to have relatively small class sizes. Most psychology classes are capped at 36—and several are capped at lower numbers than that (e.g., our seminars are capped at 20). This said, every now and again, often due to “austere budgetary conditions,” we are asked to teach a few large sections (which allows us to offer fewer total sections—and come up with some monetary savings). You know, I don’t think this is a huge deal and, in fact, I have come up with ways to enjoy teaching relatively large classes.

If you are a college professor thinking about how to effectively teach to a sea of students, I think the primary trick is to develop ways to create a small-scale atmosphere and community. Here are some tricks of the trade to make that happen.

1. Bring in advanced students (or graduate students) to serve as teaching assistants.

Most universities have ways of allowing advanced students to either volunteer as a teaching assistant (for experience) or to obtain course credit for doing so (often via “independent study credit.”). In my large classes (which have gone over 100), I try to have about 1 TA per 20 students. Each week, I have students complete two kinds of non-graded assignments that are overseen by the TAs. First, I have them write out questions related to the weekly readings—and the TAs collect them, record that they have been completed effectively, and provide feedback. This process make sure that students are regularly connected to the class and are constantly receiving feedback. Second, I have my TAs oversee weekly online (BlackBoard) discussions with their particular students (each TA has about 20 students that he or she oversees). Again, this process make sure that the students get regular feedback and that they have significant experiences in a small-group context.

2. Prepare students for essay exams—but test them with multiple-choice exams.

In my experience, preparing students for essay exams is the best way to help them process the information in a deep, thoughtful manner. I would much rather students be able to talk coherently about the content than to memorize random facts about the content! With a large class, it is tricky, as essay exams take much longer to grade than do multiple-choice exams. I have a system for dealing with this. Before each exam, I give my students a list of potential essays. They could number between 10-20 essays. I tell them that to study effectively, in addition to reading their notes and the textbook, they should write out answers to all of the essays. And I always offer that students can bring their written work to my office hours (or to the office hours of our TAs) so we can help them go over their work—and make sure that they understand the concepts. The trick comes in with how I make the exam. I write multiple-choice items largely based on what strong essays would need to include. So if an essay on the topic of kin-selected altruism would need to include a section on the concept of inclusive fitness, I will write a multiple-choice item that taps a basic understanding of inclusive fitness. In my experience, this system has many benefits, including the following:

  • Students study very hard due to the large amount of essays that they need to prepare.
  • Students develop a coherent, narrative understanding of the content—an understanding that is transferable to their ability to write or talk about the ideas.
  • Students who study hard tend to do well on the multiple-choice items simply because these items were designed to match closely with the content from the essays.
  • Students do not report the process as stressful because they know that if they prepare all of the essays ahead of time, they should do well on the exam (and for students who do follow that process, that is usually the case).

And for the record, I actually grade these things by hand without any of the fancy scantron technology—I have found over the years that it is more efficient to do this by hand than to bring them to another office and wait a day or two for them to be done by computer. This is a matter of preference, of course.

3. Assign one brief high-impact paper assignment.

OK, I will say you could consider this one optional, but I think it is really a great thing to do if you can make the time. Obviously, the particular assignment you provide will depend on the goals and content of your particular class. For my evolutionary psychology class, which I sometimes offer to a large number of students, I assign a two-page research proposal on some novel and testable idea that the students have developed through the class. I provide them a model of such a paper so they can see the elements and the gist of it. This assignment is similar to what might be submitted, for instance, to a conference as a brief summary of a research idea. I tell my students that points will be taken off if it seeps onto a third page (citing the conference example, with conference panels being less than friendly to submissions that do not conform to the stated guidelines). I tell students that they can bring early drafts to myself or to the TAs prior to the submission. While it does take a while to grade these, it’s not forever. I’d say I end up spending about eight total hours grading papers like this for a class of about 100. To me, the benefits of having students engage in a thoughtful writing exercise is simply worth it.

4. Take attendance (efficiently) every single time.

As a relatively senior college professor, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get to know students on a personal level. When a professor does not take the time to know his or her students, the teaching/learning process is compromised because apathy can seep in. When I teach a large class, I take attendance every single time with my goal of trying to get to know each student. I probably don’t always end up memorizing every student’s name, but I do usually come close. And the time spent in the process is worth it because the students feel connected to me and to the course more broadly as a result. Caring is, to my mind, foundational in all aspects of teaching. And there are plenty of ways to demonstrate genuine caring when teaching large classes.

Bottom Line

Are you a college professor who is being assigned a super-sized class? Nervous about it? Worried that students will become one big sea of apathy? Worried that you won’t be able to provide meaningful assessments? With a bit of resourcefulness, there are several ways to achieve all of the goals that you would want to achieve in your classroom—even if there are 100 of them on those tiered seats in that windowless room in the Lecture Center basement!