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Ask Professor Pedagogy: First time teaching a 200+ Student Survey Course

Posted by on Friday, February 1, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

by Adam Wilsman, Graduate Teaching Fellow

(Professor P. is away at a conference this week)

Dear Professor P.,

Recently, my department head notified me that I would be teaching our department’s largest survey course next semester.  This 200-student class will be the largest I’ve ever taught and I’m worried about how I will handle it.  I have typically taught classes of 15-40 students in which leading discussions is relatively easy, but in such a large class, I think I’ll just have to stick to lecturing.  This worries me.  I can see my students’ glazed over looks already! Help!

– Leery of Large Lectures

Dear Leery,

You’re right to be concerned.  Teaching large classes comes with many challenges.  Many of us have the tendency to teach these large classes as our professors taught us: with a lecture-heavy approach and discussions often pigeon-holed in weekly discussion sections.  The trouble is that large lecture classes don’t simply cause glazed over looks, but they also tend to promote student disengagement and feelings of alienation.  This is especially problematic because these introductory survey classes so often represent students’ introduction to the college classroom.  A freshman’s experience in a survey course could be the difference between finishing college and dropping out early.  Furthermore, the large size of these courses and the resulting feeling among students that they are disconnected from the professor and TAs erodes many students’ sense of responsibility.  This is why a few short weeks into the semester, attendance in these large lecture classes tends to plummet.

Here at Vanderbilt, approximately 8.2% of classes have 50 or more students.[1] While that may not seem like a lot, most of us will teach large lecture courses at some point in our careers, whether at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.  So how can we make our large classes feel small (or at least smaller)?

Of all the special challenges that large courses present, there are also advantages.  In these large classes, think of your students as a diverse human resource to be drawn upon in pursuit of your learning goals.  There are always enough students for interaction, so do what you can to facilitate productive interactions.[2]

You might also be interested in our upcoming events on Teaching Large Classes:

  • Teaching to Thousands: A Conversation about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
    Thursday, February 21, 3:10-4:30pm
  • Teaching Large Classes
    Tuesday, February 26, 4:10-5:30pm

Find out more about these events and register now.

It can be more difficult, but it is not impossible to foster rich discussions in large lecture classes.  As in the case of discussion sections, it is simply vital that you set the right tone from the beginning.  Make it clear during the first weeks of class that you expect students to question you and interact with your lectures.  Take intermittent breaks to field questions or use a muddiest point exercise to coax questions out.  Integrate discussion questions into lectures every 10-20 minutes to maintain student focus.  After all, many studies suggest that our students struggle to focus on one task effectively much longer than that.  This integration of discussion questions into lecture isn’t always easy.  Coming up with discussion questions that promote student participation and encourage reflectivity is not a simple task, but requires time and thought.

You should also consider the role that technology can play in stoking student participation.  Classroom response systems, or clickers, are an effective way to encourage students to debate and can embolden students to talk who would otherwise sit quietly.  Similarly, online discussion boards, used in-class or out, can provide structured opportunities for students who are otherwise too shy to participate in class discussion.

Finally, one can always integrate small-group activities into the large lecture class.  Studies suggest that small-group activities promote student mastery of material, enhance critical thinking skills, provide rapid feedback for the instructor, and facilitate the development of affective dimensions in students, such as students’ sense of self-efficacy and learner empowerment.[3] You can ask small groups of 2-5 to process content by talking through it, writing about it, or presenting it to the class.  Assign group members roles (like facilitator, recorder, divergent thinker, etc.) or distribute a group assessment rubric to keep groups relatively balanced and fair, with fewer students simply “along for the ride.”

Ultimately, there’s a lot that we can do to shake-up the traditional large class and you do not need to simply lecture every class.  Try to integrate discussion and group-oriented activities to break up the class period and you’ll notice fewer of your students drifting off!

Want to do some additional reading for more ideas? I suggest these resources:

  • Cooper, James L. and Pamela Robinson.  “The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 81 (2000): 5-16.
  • Heppner, Frank. Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes.  San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.
  • Renaud, Susan, Elizabeth Tannenbaum, and Phillip Stantial. “Student-Centered Teaching in Large Classes with Limited Resources.” English Teaching Forum Number 3 (2007).
  • Stanley, Christine A. and M. Erin Porter. Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty.  Boston: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

– Professor P.


[1] U.S. News and World Report.  “Colleges: Vanderbilt University.”  Accessed November 29, 2012.

[2] Susan Renaud, Elizabeth Tannenbaum, and Phillip Stantial, “Student-Centered Teaching in Large Classes with Limited Resources,” English Teaching Forum Number 3 (2007): 13.

[3] James L. Cooper and Pamela Robinson, “The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 81 (2000), 12.







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