Strategies for Teaching Large Classes

Frank Heppner, a biology professor and author of Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes, has been teaching large classes (and he considers 300 students a “small” class) for 38 years. He stopped counting the number of students taught once it reached 20,000.

He confesses to having made “every horrendous teaching error you can make” and explains how these mistakes led to his book: “Once I passed my 50th semester of introductory biology, I began to regret that my profession doesn’t have a real apprenticeship for teaching—why should every young professor facing his or her first big class…have to make the same mistakes I did and, perhaps more important, why should they not know that everybody…has the same problems? I couldn’t think of a good reason, and that’s why I decided to write this book.” (p. x)

The book covers a host of topics related to large classes, including testing, grading, managing TAs and graders, using media effectively, and devising activities to use when the classroom is an auditorium. In the first chapter, he describes the large-class teacher as a course manager and then suggests how that should affect the teacher’s thinking about the large class. Here’s a sample of Heppner’s suggestions for teaching large classes:

Large courses can’t be ad-libbed. Heppner thinks it’s a whole lot easier to “wing it” in a small class. In a large class, saying one thing and then deciding on a change can be a logistical nightmare. In large classes, instructor preparation is critical.

A bad policy is better than an inconsistent policy. All students, but especially beginning students, need consistency in courses. It helps them manage the anxiety that college-level learning experiences provoke. The masses quickly become negative if an instructor starts fussing around with a course policy, especially if that policy pertains to evaluation or grading criteria. Things go much more smoothly if changes are implemented between semesters rather than midsemester.

Put it in writing. This bit of advice relates to the previous suggestion. It makes students accountable even if they weren’t in class when something was discussed, even though “a classmate said” that they only needed three references, even though a student is “sure” the teacher said chapter five would not be on the exam. Besides giving the instructor a way to deal with the plethora of student excuses, this practice helps the instructor because it forces decisions about policies and procedures before problems emerge.
Start like Attila the Hun; finish as Mr. Rogers. “Whatever your teaching personality, it will be easiest for both you and your class if you start out the semester at the most extreme form of your personality, and then if things seems to be working out okay, you can relax a bit… On the other hand, if you start out cozy and friendly…and the class gets the idea that you aren’t really serious about things like deadlines, if you get tough later on, they will feel like you have turned against them and aren’t really as nice as you seemed to be.” (p. 10)

Heppner ends his book with this observation, “Teaching large classes well is the most difficult and challenging task in academia and offers the fewest tangible rewards. Knowing, however, that you have a real, positive, and inspiring effect on hundreds or thousands of young people will more than compensate for the liabilities. Do it right, and you will have former students all over the world who will be grateful to you for the wisdom you gave them.” (p. 150)

Reference: Heppner, F. Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Excerpted from A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes, The Teaching Professor, December, 2007.