March 31st, 2011

A Lifeline for Those Teaching Large Classes


Simon, who teaches very large economics classes wonders in a blog comment if the kind of facilitative learning described in the March 2 post is possible in mass classes. I’d like to use this post to address his query. First off, as any large course instructor knows, teaching those big, required, introductory courses is not easy. In fact, it may well be the most difficult teaching assignment given to teachers. In my mind this raises a host of intriguing questions about who should be teaching and taking those courses. But that’s a topic for another post.

Unfortunately, class sizes are increasing almost everywhere, and that means the number of faculty struggling with the challenges of large courses is growing, too. But if there’s a silver lining to that big, dark cloud of bad news it’s the increased coverage of the topic in the pedagogical literature. Let me highlight several good resources.

  • The redesign of an introductory biology course, described by the authors as “problematic” and enrolling between 170-190 students, included the reordering of content, regular use of in-class group problem solving and some student-centered strategies like a revised approach to quizzing. “Our positive results illustrate how changing the instructional design of a course, without wholesale changes to course content, can lead to improved student attitudes and performance.”Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., and Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education, 8 (Fall), 203-213.
  • Problem-Based Learning, Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning and Peer-Led Team Learning are three group models developed on the science side of the academic house but are now used in many disciplines. This article describes each, and identifies relevant resources and references research on their efficacy. The models are adaptable and offer a range of ways of engaging students with each other in substantive learning activities.Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R. S., Platt, T., Varma-Nelson, P., and White, H. G. (2008) Pedagogies of engagement in science: A comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36 (4), 262-273.

Here’s a couple of excellent books:

  • Stanley and Porter’s book is a classic and one that anyone who teaches a large class ought to own. It’s an anthology with an opening section that addresses all the issues involved in planning, delivering and assessing learning in a large class. It even includes a readable summary of the research. Would it surprise you to learn that one of the earliest studies of college teaching was an analysis of the effects of class size on learning? The second section contains chapters written by faculty in 17 different disciplines, all with large courses. They offer a wealth of ideas and information.Stanley, C. A. and Porter, M. E. (2002). Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty.
  • Heppner’s book also addresses a variety of issues, contains practical advice and a range of alternatives to lecturing. He offers wisdom accumulated across 38 years of teaching large classes.Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching Large College Classes: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Regular readers of this blog and The Teaching Professor newsletter know that I frequently direct faculty to reading in disciplines other than their own because I believe many instructional strategies are transferrable. The best way to decide if you think that’s true is by taking a look some of these resources. In this case I’d even propose that most of these large course strategies are great ideas for smaller classes as well.

Now, do the strategies need to be adapted so that they work with the kind of content you teach, with the peculiarities of your teaching style and the learning needs of your students? Absolutely! But what faculty who teach large classes often don’t have are ideas and the literature contains a plethora of them—the effectiveness of many verified by research. The tip of the iceberg described here is supported by a huge collection of ideas and information not mentioned here.

I encourage you to use the comment box to share your best ideas and favorite references for teaching large classes.

  • Larry Spence

    I would add to Maryellen’s suggestions Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction, which is tailored to introductory physics courses but lays out an approach using concept quizzes that have been used successfully in other large science and social science introductory courses. Mazur’s work leads to other ways that in-class testing can be a powerful teaching technique. The research by cognitive scientists such as Robert Bjork suggests that tests produce better learning than lectures. Too much information, such as lecturing provides in large classes, promotes illusions of knowledge and hampers students’ self-monitoring. Pretests that challenge student ignorance are more effective even than study time. When students attempt to answer questions they recognize their ignorance. That is a first step to learning. See the article by Lisa Son and Nate Kornell, (2010) “The Virtues of Ignorance” Behavioral Processes, 83 (2) 207-212.