Teaching a large-enrollment course can feel daunting, especially if you are used to teaching smaller groups of students. the reality is that the principles of good teaching are the same, regardless of whether you are teaching 12 students or 400 students. Teaching larger classes is a matter of scaling your practices to meet the needs of a larger group of students.
Before you tackle a scaling your teaching practices to a larger class, be sure that you are practicing good, basic course design. It's especially important for those teaching large courses to orient your course design around clear learning goals. Identifying what you want your students to do as a result of completing the course will help you make decisions about your content and weekly activities and it will make your course conceptually coherent for you students, which can reduce the number of questions students email you. While developing learning outcomes is something instructors should do for each of their courses, it is especially important to large enrollment environments where it can be harder to quickly change plans or improvise.
Here are some strategies for adapting your good pedagogical practices to a large enrollment context:
Scaling active learning
It's common for instructors to assume that lecture is the only option they have when teaching a large number of students, especially if they are teaching in an auditorium-like setting. Yet research studies demonstrate that students learn better in active learning environments. If you are new to active learning, aspire to incorporate 2-3 active learning strategies into your large enrollment class to begin the process of slowly shifting away from lecturing 100% of the time.
Here are some ideas:
Flip your classroom
Lecture is often a necessary part of instruction, but consider flipping your classroom and making lecture a homework activity. Making lecture videos that students engage outside of class allows you to focus in-class time on collaboration and active learning. It also enables students to work through lecture material in a manner that suits their needs (e.g., they can pause and take notes, re-watch key parts, and even use captions to assist their comprehension). You can then use class time to dig deeper into complex concepts through group work, discussion, and question and answer sessions.
Break up your lectures with polls
Tools like Poll Everywhere can transform your lecture into a more active experience for students. Consider pausing in your lecture to poll students about their understanding of a key concept.
Prompt students to think-pair-share
Even in large, auditorium-like settings where students sit in chairs bolted to the floor, students can still work in groups to explore and discuss concepts. Pose a question and ask students to think and/or write on it for a minute. After a minute, have them pair up with someone sitting next to them to discuss their answers. Invite a few pairs to share their reflections with the class.
Get more ideas for active learning strategies that can transform your large enrollment class.
Scaling your teaching team
Often instructors who teach large enrollment courses have additional instructional support in the form of co-instructors, teaching assistants, or graders. It's important to acknowledge that this is not always the case. It's also important to note that "large enrollment" means different things in different disciplines and contexts. Having 60 students in a writing-intensive humanities class is at least as much work as having 250 students in an intro-level science class. Regardless of your situation, take time to think about how you can leverage your expanded instructional team.
Talk to your colleagues
Even if you don't have access to teaching assistants or graders, you can scale your teaching team by reaching out to colleagues who have taught in similar contexts. Schedule coffee with them and ask them about their experience. They may even be willing to share examples of active learning assignments or communication strategies that worked for them.
Clarify roles for your teaching team
Collaboration of all sorts works better when everyone understands the part they play in achieving the goal. Take time to think about and clarify what roles each member of your instructional team will play. Here are some questions to guide your planning:
If you are co-teaching…
- Will each course session be co-taught or will each instructor take responsibility for certain sessions or tasks
- Who will be responsible for responding to questions from students?
- What are your expectations for feedback and grading? You and your co-instructor should be providing students with the same level of feedback on assignments.
If you are working with teaching assistants…
Graduate teaching assistants (TAs) are often asked to complete a range of tasks, including grading, facilitating discussion, setting up and maintaining course Canvas sites, and answering student questions. Each of these activities require different amounts of direction and support from you.
Because each instructor has different expectations for their teaching assistant(s), it's vital that you are very clear from the beginning about what you expect your TA(s) to do. Most TAs have little or no teaching experience and may be terrified by the prospect (although they probably won't admit it to you). Take time to talk with your TAs and set up weekly meetings so that they can ask questions and you can ensure that you and your TA(s) are on the same page when it comes to your learning goals and grading standards.
It's also important to remember that your TAs are students themselves and need to work their TA responsibilities around their own studies, research responsibilities, and professional engagement (e.g., conference presentations, interviewing, etc.). Consider developing a "handbook" for TA(s) that describes course policies, TA workload expectations, grading protocols for each assignment, and plans for each discussion section. Provide this to TAs at the beginning of the course and refer to it regularly in your weekly meetings with them.
If you are working with graders…
- Asking your grader(s) to help you create a grading rubric for each assignment (and possibly the assignments themselves) so that graders can understand your goals and approach to grading. Using the rubric will also help ensure equity in your grading process.
- Grading three student submissions that collectively demonstrate various skill levels and walking your grader(s) through your feedback on these assignments so they can see what you consider a strong assignment, an average assignment, and an unsuccessful assignment.
- Regularly scheduling these "norming" sessions throughout the quarter to ensure that your grader(s) grading aligns with your expectations.
If you are a TA or grader…
TAs and graders play a vital role in instruction at Caltech and are especially important to student success in large enrollment courses. If you are a TA or a grader, be sure to do the following:
- Clarify your roles and responsibilities with your supervising instructor. Be sure you understand what they expect of you.
- Talk with your supervising instructor and/or TA colleagues about meeting regularly to check in about how the course is going, troubleshoot any challenges, and to get advice.
- Clarify with your supervising instructor what they expect with regard to grading. Be sure you understand what grading processes, procedures, or policies the instructor will be using.
- Develop a time management plan so that you can balance your responsibilities as a TA or grader with your responsibilities as a student.
Scaling your communication
One of the biggest distinctions between small and large enrollment courses is the volume of email communication from students. Students should feel comfortable asking questions, but the sheer volume of email can quickly overwhelm instructors, preventing them from being able to promptly respond to students and/or meet their non-teaching responsibilities. A strong, clearly articulated communication plan can help you mitigate and manage the volume of communication produced by a large enrollment class of students.
Here are some strategies to help scale your communication:
Use a community forum to scale your ability to field questions
When you reply to a student who has emailed you with a question, you are establishing a "one-to-one model" of answering questions. While on the surface this might seem ideal, it can quickly overwhelm you, particularly because it's not uncommon for multiple students to ask the same question. Rather than spend your time answering the same question again and again, you can use an online "Community Forum" to shift to a "one-to-many" mode of answering student questions. Simply create a discussion forum in Canvas and title it "Community Forum" and let students know (through the syllabus and an announcement) that this is the place to ask course-related questions (Note: If students have questions of a personal nature, they can contact you directly or visit office hours). Questions and answers posted in the Community Forum are visible to the entire class, which is especially good for students who are hesitant to ask questions directly.
Set expectations for how and when you will communicate with students
Setting expectations is a key strategy when it comes to managing communication in a large-enrollment class. When you're creating your syllabus, be sure to include your preferred mode(s) of communication (e.g., Community Forum for class questions, email/office hours for personal questions, contacting IMSS for technical questions). Let students know when they can expect a response. Be sure to set some guardrails so that you can protect your time: being available 24/7 is not a good strategy for success. So, for example, you might let students know that you will try to answer questions within 2 business days and that you may not respond to emails sent over the weekend or holidays. Setting these sorts of expectations may reduce the number of follow-up emails from over-eager students wanting an immediate response.
Avoid answering technical questions
Even if you consider yourself technically savvy, it's not the best use of your time to be fielding scores of technical questions from students. Take advantage of Caltech's technology support structures so that you can focus on building students' knowledge and skills in your discipline. Articulate in your syllabus and Canvas site that students can get technical assistance by using the Canvas chat feature, which provides 24/7 technical assistance with Canvas.
It's important to acknowledge that a large enrollment class is likely never going to feel like a seminar and that's ok. Students understand that there are different types of learning environments. But that doesn't mean you can't feel connected to the students in a large enrollment context.
When teaching a large enrollment class, particularly if you're in a "lecture hall", it can be easy to feel distanced from your students. An idea from theatre – the practice of "breaking the fourth wall" – can be a useful way to start thinking about how to connect with students in a large enrollment class. The "fourth wall" is the figurative wall that separates the performance itself from the audience (the three other walls are the actual physical walls surrounding the stage). When you break the fourth wall, you are speaking directly to the audience and including them in the action of the performance. In doing so, they become a part of the story. The act of breaking the fourth wall functions to break the barriers separating the large group of students from the instructor and also forces them to take a more active role in the performance.
Here are some things you can do to break that fourth wall, connect with your students, and foster a strong classroom community.
Learn about your students
One way to foster connection with students in a large enrollment course is to intentionally seize opportunities to learn about your students and share a bit about yourself. Consider arriving to class a few minutes early (or staying a few minutes after) so that you can chat with students before or after class.
Share about your experiences
Another powerful way to connect with students is to share a bit about when you were a student. Tell a story about the first reaction you performed as a chemist or the first time you held a really old document as an historian. You can even share stories of your epic failures – maybe the first computer program you wrote went very, very wrong or your first college midterm didn't go well. Stories like these help humanize you and may allow students to see possible career paths for themselves.
Don't be afraid to have fun. Letting students see your silly side can help them see you as more than just a figure at the front of the classroom.
Note: Telling learners a bit about yourself and being informal can foster a sense of trust and make learners feel connected to you and the course. What and how much you share is totally up to you – sometimes instructors have good reasons for not getting too personal. Go with what you're comfortable with.
Scaling your evaluation
Providing feedback to students is absolutely essential to the learning process – feedback helps students see where and how they can improve. However, providing feedback and grading large enrollment classes, particularly in environments without TAs, can quickly sap your strength. Rather than simply defaulting to a handful of high-stakes exams (which research suggests has a range of negative effects on students, particularly those from underserved and historically marginalized groups), be strategic in your assignment design and approach to grading.
Here are some ways you can scale your evaluation of students' learning:
Use multiple choice exams … wisely
Multiple-choice quizzes and exams are often the default choice for instructors who teach large enrollment courses because they can be automatically scored in Canvas or graded quickly by using scantron sheets. While multiple-choice exams have a reputation for testing only low-level thinking skills, it is possible to write multiple-choice questions that prompt students to engage in higher-order thinking. Multiple-choice quizzes and exams in Canvas also provide instructors opportunities to scale their feedback by pre-programming it into quiz answers, so that students can learn from their mistakes.
Use peer review
For written or project-based assessments, having students review each other's work can be an efficient way to provide feedback. It also benefits the students because the act of reviewing helps them develop skills associated with higher-order thinking, as well as communication and interpersonal skills that are valuable across disciplinary and professional contexts. Peer review is available through Canvas and can be especially effective when coupled with a rubric articulating clear criteria for reviewers to consider while evaluating their peers' work.
Create rubrics and share them with your students
Rubrics are a great way to scale your assessment because they focus your grading on clear criteria. They also help make grading less subjective and more consistent by forcing you and your TAs or graders to consider the same criteria for each and every student. Within Canvas, you can create rubrics, align them with your learning outcomes, and use them to grade assignments and quizzes.
Need some inspiration for creating a rubric? Check out the public gallery of rubric examples hosted by Rcampus.
Create auto-graded low-stakes or no-stakes assessments
When facing the prospect of grading a large enrollment course, instructors may instinctively try to scale down the number of assessments and simply assign a couple of high-stakes exams. But research consistently demonstrates the value of formative, low-stakes assessments – that is, assessments that provide students the opportunity to test their knowledge, identify gaps, and learn from failure. Low- or no-stakes activities like polls, practice quizzes, and entry/exit slips provide you with almost instant feedback on whether students are grasping key concepts and reduce the likelihood of cheating by minimizing the impact of failure. Consider using Poll Everywhere and auto-graded Canvas practice quizzes to scale your assessment.