Managing Large Classes

1. Define expectations clearly in the syllabus. The syllabus should be like a contract that presents students with Learning Outcomes expected when they successfully complete the course. Designating required content and suggesting numerous optional sections that you may not have considered, the syllabus template gives you a head start on building your syllabus,. Add as many details as you think will help your students succeed in the course. Keeping track of syllabus-related questions asked by your students is a good idea. Sharpen vague sections of the present version next time around.

2. Reduce uncertainty. Even if at first glance it seems ridiculous to spell out specific rules for all contingencies, students must understand that a large class functions like a society with laws and consequences of not respecting those laws. Some examples: no make-up of quiz or exams; use of text or calculators at exam; late arrivals; disturbing the class by chat or reading the paper; cell phones; tech etiquette; etc. Possibly students will think you’re tough, but they also will recognize fairness.

3. Delegate. Use TAs to help you grade homework, quizzes, and multiple choice exams. Time is important for all and should not be lost digging for quizzes, exams, and graded homework, so delegate responsibility to students as well. Break up the entire class into small groups of 10 students. Explain that grouping is to prevent the chaos of 500 people picking up quizzes or exams. Require each group’s choosing, in the first week of class, one leader and one alternate. The leader will collect and turn in homework. The leader will also receive and distribute graded homework, quizzes, exams, etc. If the leader of a group is not present then the alternate assumes the leader’s role. With grouped submissions and returns, you lessen the danger of students complaining that they did not find their exam in the pile left on the table in the classroom, or blame your TAs for misplacing their exam. Replace confusion with collaboration by making each TA responsible for specific groups. No quizzes, homework, or exams will be lost. Ask your students to come up with ideas to improve their team’s function. At the end of the semester, ask groups to tell you how they functioned—what innovations in task management they invented. Your interest not only shows that you care, but also gathers tips to share with future students.

4. Keep students’ attention when you teach. Make sure that the topic you talk about it is on the projector, overhead, or blackboard. Move around so students must shift attention to follow your path. Walking the aisles brings you closer. Proximity humanizes, and keeps eyes on you, not irrelevant websites.

5. Test what you teach. List Learning Outcomes in the course syllabus. At the beginning of new topics, remind students how this next topic fits into the Learning Outcomes big picture. List the topic’s main ideas and what students are supposed to be able to demonstrate by the end of the class on that topic. Give cues to identify the important parts of the day’s lecture. From time to time, ask students to pay particular attention. “This will be on the exam!” You get not only students’ attention and improve their learning but also gratitude for being a good teacher and testing on what you taught.

6. Every topic, no matter how abstract, must have real life application. Anticipate the objection: “Why should we study it if we never use it in real life?” Teach from examples that illustrate the importance of understanding the subject area. Stress real life applications. Give many examples. Ask students what real-life applications they can think of? Give an example, and then ask them to come up with more examples. Students have an easier time remembering material related to a compelling narrative or a real life example.

7. Avoid using yourself as a constant example. Students have suffered the barrage of parental litanies: “When I was your age…” “When I was in college…” “Back in my student years…” So, respecting that experience …, maybe tell a story of how you struggled in a situation related to the topic you teach, but skip the frequent “I did this…; I did that…; I know…; I think…” Boredom sets in quickly.

8. Avoid mid-course changes. Win trust by keeping things simple & straight. Changing rules in the middle of the semester or playing around with deadlines and the grading system confuses and frustrates students. Have your syllabus in order on the first day of class and stick to it.

9. Meet your students. Use office hours wisely. Instead of having only one student in your office and 20 more at the door, it may be better to hold a portion of your weekly office hours in a classroom. If one student has a content-related question, several others probably have the same question. In a classroom with a blackboard you can offer the same opportunity to ask those questions—but enhanced by all working together and all learning from each other. As effective as classroom office hours can be, a portion should remain in-office and private because some students will only seek help in that setting. Still, many students will never visit your office, others only once in a semester. So take advantage of that one-time meeting, and offer your entire attention. Show care and concern. Office hours students are your ambassadors to the class, your allies. They will teach others who don’t come despite having questions. They will spread the word of what a great a teacher you are!

10. Keep it simple. With a large class of 300+ students, you don’t want to have a cumbersome grading system that students cannot figure out. You don’t want to be overwhelmed keeping track of multiple assignments and weights for each. Best to abandon the weight system and use a simple percent or points system. A simple and straightforward grading system will defuse tension.