Large Classes??? How Do I Deal with That?
Posted March 4, 2015
By Chris Hakala
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine recently who lamented the “large classes” that she had to teach. When I asked her what she meant by large classes she said, “I have a class of 25 this semester!” Now, at many institutions, this does not seem to be “large” but, the reality is, large classes really are a matter of perspective and context and not a matter of size. Twenty-five students is really nothing at many institutions, but at others, 25 would seem positively overwhelming. No matter what the actual number is, the PERCEPTION of large classes has a tremendous impact on how a faculty member approaches any given course. In this post, I will assume that “large” is a matter of perspective and not a specific number. Rather, I will provide strategies that will minimize the potential negative impact of large classes on pedagogy and focus more on how to utilize the science of learning to maximize interactions in your class in ways that are empirically validated and effective.
PROBLEMS OF THE “LARGE CLASS”
Faculty tend to believe that there are several issues that inhibit effectiveness in large classes. These tend to involve workload issues that would prohibit the faculty member from doing things that he or she might normally do. Below, I’ll address two such issues and provide thoughts and ideas on how to mitigate against the problems that might be inherent in the large class.
In order to manage the grading in a large class, you might consider the following tips:
1. Have a VERY structured syllabus with firm deadlines for assignments (always, of course, leave room for faculty discretion, but be pretty clear that the deadlines are the deadlines).
2. Have a variety of assessments, including both objective and subjective outcomes that can be assessed in ways that make sense (objective makes sense for content, subjective for critical thinking).
3. Have a variety of low stakes assessments (Cross & Angelo, 1988).
4. Spread assignments out across the semester as much as possible.
5. Develop peer mentoring/editing strategies if they are possible within your course.
There is a great deal of research on the effectiveness of these techniques (see Benassi, Overson & Hakala, 2014, for additional ideas with empirical support). Utilizing strategies to guard against “grading burnout” is smart, and faculty would do well to ensure that they are not assigning more than they can provide effective feedback for (see Brown, Roedigger & McDaniel, 2014). The reasons are manifold, but all seem to boil down to this: more contact with feedback enhances student learning. Sounds simple, but the right procedures need to be put in place for it to be effective.
ACTIVE LEARNING STRATEGIES
None of the strategies I am talking about here are completely novel but all serve the purpose of engaging students in less than traditional ways. As described in much of the literature on cognition (Daniel & Poole, 2009), engagement and attention are the keys to learning. That said, the following strategies have been shown to increase engagement, attention, and learning.
1. Think-pair-share: This is a strategy where students spend a moment thinking about a topic of problem (about 2 minutes), turn to a partner and discuss it, and then report out to the rest of the group. This is a strategy that often allows students to feel more engaged in the course. And, the TPS strategy also helps engage students when followed by a report-out that requires each student to comment on something. The benefits are for the students talking and reporting out, not for the rest of the class. This also has the added benefit of allowing for misunderstandings to be described and for the instructor to correct them immediately.
2. Inter-teaching: Inter-teaching, which requires students to respond to questions prior to class and then discuss answers with fellow students in class, has been described as a way to encourage students to prepare for class. The reality is, and the evidence shows that by having students respond to questions as homework, discuss their answers and then report-out, students show increased engagement with the material and thus, seem to learn more effectively (Saville, Zinn, & Elliot, 2005).
SO, BACK TO BIG CLASSES . . .
So, how does a faculty member use these tips in their large classes? Judiciously. In fact, one of the most important things about teaching large classes is to recognize that each faculty member has a particular style that seems to work for them (or else they wouldn’t be teaching!). Use the tips that work with what you typically do and ignore the others.
Create an environment in which student learning is the goal. Create a classroom that lends itself to engagement. Create a climate that is open and conducive to student learning and work to ensure that students begin to feel involved in the classroom. As a discipline, the Science of Learning has come a long way and continues to develop empirically validated evidence for good pedagogy. Consult it often and you will reap the rewards!
Benassi VA, Overson CE, Hakala CM. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.
Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Daniel, D. & Pool, D. (2009). Learning for life: An Ecological Approach to Pedagogical Research. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Saville B.K, Zinn T.E, Elliott M.P. (2005). Interteaching vs. traditional methods of instruction: A preliminary analysis. Teaching of Psychology. 32:161–163.
[Christopher Hakala is Director of University Teaching and Learning at Quinnipiac University. He received his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire in 1995 and had previously taught at Western New England University in Massachusetts for thirteen years, and at Gettysburg College and Lycoming College, both in Pennsylvania. His areas of expertise are teaching and learning, reading comprehension and psycholinguistics. Chris has also served as Associate Editor of Teaching of Psychology and Associate Director of the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology for the Society for Teaching of Psychology (Society for the Teaching of Psychology, APA Division 2) as well as a co-editor of the book, Applying Science of Learning to Education along with Victor Benassi and Catherine Overson.]