Teaching Large Classes


Teaching a large class, especially in an immense, tiered lecture hall can be challenging for many teachers.  Common perceived challenges for teachers are:

  • Management of distractions: talking, late arrivals, early departures
  • Perceived anonymity of the students: difficulty of learning names, of taking attendance, of getting students to come to class, of getting students to participate in class, of getting students to do assignments in a timely manner
  • Lack of flexibility in class activities: difficulty in varying activities, in doing group work, in enhancing critical thinking and writing skills
  • Diverse background and preparation of the students.

For students, the challenge is being part of that sea of faces, especially if they are new to the higher education experience. Some specific challenges for students are:

  • Not knowing what is relevant or important information
  • Hesitation in asking questions or in other ways indicating a lack of knowledge
  • Hesitation in appearing “smart” to their peers (the nerd curse)
  • Lack of experience with time management, studying, or other skills necessary for success in college
  • Perceived anonymity which allows them to challenge authority and to push boundaries.

While it is tempting for teachers to rely on the traditional lecture approach to large classes, there are a variety of strategies that can engage students and enrich their experience in a large class.

How it works

Even before a class begins, a teacher can work to break down the barriers of anonymity and develop a relationship with the students.  Arrive early, take time to greet students as they come in.  That can seem like a challenge as the teacher is trying to get technology up and running to start class on time, but even a ’hello’ and a moment of eye contact goes an long way in establishing a connection.

It is important to foster a classroom atmosphere of mutual respect, acceptance, focus and enthusiasm for learning.  It is also important to establish rules for behaviour, especially for a large class.  Whatever a teacher’s teaching style, it is probably best to be the most rigid, rule-driven version of oneself and then relax as a positive classroom culture develops over time.  

Active learning strategies and tactics in the large class can be problematic, especially in a fixed lecture hall, but are more important than in smaller classes to engage students, manage attention and encourage attendance. Activities such as ‘Think-Pair-Share’, ‘Minute Papers’, ‘Muddiest Point’, ‘Prairie Fire’, or ‘Snowball’ can help engage students, encourage higher order thinking and provide feedback to the teacher on how well the students are doing. (See Durham College's CAFE - Learning Techniques page for a description of some of these activities.) There are a variety of electronic and web-based tools such as Kahoot which can support active learning in large classes

"Flipping the classroom" is a blended delivery teaching strategy that has proven to be effective in large classes.  In a "flipped" classroom, the "lecture" content is delivered online, often in the form of a video or narrated presentation, while face-to-face classes are used for what would traditionally be considered "homework"  – worked examples; case studies and problem sets; group discussions; real-life applications – with the guidance of the teacher.

Use at Mohawk

There are a number of large lecture halls at Mohawk which seat over 100 students. Typically these have fixed, tiered seats and desks.  Group work and active learning activities can seem daunting in these classes at first – but it can be done successfully.

Classrooms have wi-fi connections which can support web-based tools such as Kahoot, and Socrative.

MyCanvas is an excellent platform for delivering video content in a flipped class, and can help in monitoring whether students complete pre-class assignments.

Who can help you at Mohawk

CTL can provide a variety of supports to individual faculty and to program teams. Workshops are offered throughout the term on teaching large classes and active learning strategies. The Teaching & Learning Consultant - Education Development, can advise on teaching strategies and in-class tactics and tools. Educational Technology Specialists can support the development of online content that can be used in a flipped class strategy. 

More information

Active Learning Subject Guide from the Library: Various resources such as websites and books on active learning, recommended by the Library.

Learning Techniques: an overview and videos of some of the tactics mentioned above such as "Think-Pair-Share", "Minute Paper", etc. from Durham College's CAFE.

A Survival Handbook For Teaching Large Classes: A useful guide from UNC Charlotte with lots of ideas on managing attendance, classroom climate and handling exams in a large class.

Teaching Strategies: Large Classes and Lectures: A list of resources from the Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan.