How to engage students in large classes

Large classes can be subdivided into smaller groups. File

Teaching a large class poses many challenges, including student disengagement and feelings of alienation, which can erode students’ sense of responsibility and lead to behaviours that reflect and promote lack of engagement. It gets worse when the class is conducted in a large lecture hall with stadium seating and seats that are bolted to the floor. How does one best manage the daily administration of what can often feel like a small city and keep them actively engaged?

First, people generally think of large classes as including 100 students or more. But whether you have 50 or 1,000 students, if your class feels big, there are important strategies one can employ to promote a successful learning experience for all. You will agree that the increased size of the class increases the need for structure and the importance of particular decisions you face as you plan your large class.

That being said, a lot can depend on the room set-up; how much scope you have for short breakout sessions in small groups, or whether they are in standard fixed lecture seating in benched rows. Where the room permits flexibility in breakout sessions, groupings and information stations are successful as they help in relation to the different learning styles that will be prevalent within the room.  Where the room restricts this kind of activity, engaging with questions can help if used wisely. 

The first tool to bring into play in large classes is effective use of groups. Large classes can be subdivided into smaller groups, so students can have the opportunity to discuss a topic of interest with their peers in a “safer”, more restricted environment than the context of the entire class. These could start as think-pair-share activities that end with one pair sharing with another. Jigsaw, literature circles and project presentation teams are other interesting groupings you can explore. As long as they are small, structured and differentiated, they can be a very effective tool of engagement in large classes.

Another engaging approach is the use of critical thinking strategies. During lectures, ask questions early on to stimulate interest and gauge students’ level of knowledge; in the middle, to break the pace of the lecture; and/or at the end, to review main ideas and gather ideas for future classes. Whether your question is philosophical, theoretical or mathematical, ask your students a probing question at the beginning of class.

Brainstorming is another strategy that can engage large classes. Choose a strategic point in your class for brainstorming: for example, when beginning a new topic, or at the end of a lecture as review. Use students’ input to decide on sub-topics to focus on during your class, to identify possible lines of questioning, and to assess students’ level of comprehension and interest in your topic.

Ungraded quizzes can also help in keeping large classes engaged. An ungraded quiz encourages students to pay attention during lectures by presenting them with a short-term, non-threatening learning objective. Use ungraded quizzes at the beginning of a lecture to determine the level of knowledge, or at the end of a lecture as a review and incentive for students to retain and comprehend information. Alternatively, use an ungraded quiz at the end of a lecture to gauge how successful you’ve been in teaching the material.

At the end of the day, what matters is whether or not learning took place. Clearly, the traditional lecture method that places a teacher at the front of a large class does not enhance learning. Teachers should therefore embrace the strategies that will engage learners irrespective of class size.

 

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