Considerations for Large Lecture Classes

Six ways to make lectures in a large enrollment course more manageable and effective

1. Establish learning goals.

Once you and your students know where you’re going, the trip is easier and more efficient. And often the very act of creating learning goals results in reducing the amount of material to be covered, since you have brought your course into more focus.

2. Cut down on the amount of material you are trying to cover.

Content Tyranny is a problem for most college instructors, that is, trying to cover too much material. The result is usually opposite--less material absorbed at a more superficial level--of what we hope for. Be harsh with yourself and cut the material that is not absolutely essential. Lectures, particularly in large enrollment courses, should cover the following kinds of material:

  • key points and general themes
  • especially difficult material
  • material not covered elsewhere
  • examples and illustrations
  • material of high interest/relevance to students

Steps to take: Read through your syllabus and mark every topic as either “essential” or “helpful.” Cut out all the “helpful”—move them to “suggested further reading.” If you’ve marked everything “essential,” ask a colleague to mark your syllabus the same way. If all else fails (and 90% of the time, you’ll be able to cut material), you need to redesign the goals of the class, perhaps in consultation with your department curriculum committee. But this is rarely necessary, if you are honest about what can be cut. Remember, you cannot teach everything in one course: it just doesn’t work. (And if you could, your students wouldn’t remember, anyway).

3. Focus your lecture on analyzing issues or problems, rather than on conveying factual information.

Rely on students to get facts from their reading. Devote lectures to more in depth discussion and analysis. For instance, begin each class session with a question that you will devote the session to answering. This also leads to more focus and engagement. Practical Pointers on Preparing and Giving Lectures covers these ideas as well as others that will lead to more effective lecture classrooms.

Steps to take: Turn a general topic into a question (the same thing we ask students to do for papers). Instead of “The ways lodgepole pines propagate” make it “Why do lodgepole pines need fire to propagate?” Instead of “The Rise of the Middle Class in Postwar America” make it “What factors were the major drivers in the rise of the middle class?” And you can ask for ideas at the beginning of class, as a way of involving the students in answering the questions.

4. Engage your students through active learning practices and interactive lectures.

“What professors do in their class matters far less than what they ask their students to do.” (“Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer,” Halpern and Hakel). It’s difficult for anyone to sit for 50 or 80 minutes and simply listen. Attention span begins to fade after about 20 minutes, so you need to stop every 20 minutes or so and do something new.

Steps to take:

  • Break the class into groups (yes, even in a large class—you can just ask them to turn to the two or three people around them) to investigate a problem or answer a question; after five minutes you can randomly call on groups to respond. Just one of many ways students can collaborate during lectures.
  • Hand out three x five cards and ask students to jot down a question they have as result of the last 20 minutes. Have them pass the cards three or four people to the left. Ask various people if they can answer the question on the card they now have.
  • Stop the lecture for a general discussion.
  • Show a short, relevant video clip.
  • Discuss the topic as it has appeared in the news.

Consider having your students sit in lecture with others from their section, and you can then direct exercises and questions to them by section. Not only will they be more inclined to engage with people they already know, but you will be reinforcing the importance of the sections and making the course seem more of a unified whole.

5. Provide more and shorter feedback to students throughout the semester.

Don’t rely just on midterms and finals to let students know how they’re doing. By providing them with frequent feedback on their progress, you ultimately save time (and anguish). Not all assessments need to have grades attached. Quick, frequent, formative assessments help students to focus on areas they need work on, while also breaking up lectures and increasing student engagement. 

Feedback on their learning:

1) Hand out 3 x 5 cards at the end of the class and ask students to identify the major points covered. This can be anonymous or not. Collect them, skim them, and begin the next class by talking about their responses. Ask those students who were off to see you or their GSI, or to review their notes, etc. 2) Ask them to identify the “muddiest point” in the lecture. 3) Begin the lecture by soliciting questions (on cards or not) based on their reading for the day. 4) Stop a lecture at any time after a difficult topic and ask them to explain it to an intelligent high school student who knows nothing about the topic.

Feedback on your teaching:
Using the same techniques, ask them about the pace of lectures, use of presentation tools, clarity of examples/explanations, flow of the course or anything else you would like to know about.

6. Poll students to gauge student understanding and adjust your content

Use a student response system (e.g., iClicker Cloud or Poll Everywhere) to get instant feedback on your students' comprehension of a concept:

If your class is too big to track how individuals are doing between exams, have your students take a quick anonymous poll to gauge whether or not a concept was understood. With a student response system, you can poll students on the fly and adjust your content appropriately. This saves time spent unnecessarily on concepts that are already understood and allows you to follow-up only where needed. Keep students engaged by asking thoughtful questions they can answer individually, and then asking the class to respond to the collective results.