Large lectures 101

Climbing the terra-cotta tiled steps of the oldest building on campus, I see a student ahead holding open the door for me. I shuffle my oversized black-wheeled bag past him and make my way into the auditorium at San Jose State University (SJSU) in California. Head up and shoulders straight, I glide past the back 10 rows, then the middle 15, and finally the front seven. Signaling my teaching assistant (TA) to turn the house lights down a quarter, I switch on the handheld microphone and welcome my new class of 435 human biology students. It’s show time.  

I love the look I get from people, especially fellow academics, when I tell them I teach classes this size—and love it. It’s disbelief mixed with a suspicion that I might be a little out of my mind.

Teaching roughly 2000 students every year helps me achieve these goals on a scale that I could never achieve by teaching smaller courses.

It’s true though: I do love teaching large classes. It allows me to connect with more students.

I entered higher education because, like many, I wanted to make a difference. Specifically, I wanted to make a difference in the health of the global environment and the lives of students. Teaching roughly 2000 students every year helps me achieve these goals on a scale that I could never achieve by teaching smaller courses.

Since 2007, I have explored ways to make the large-lecture format engaging for students while keeping my sanity and delivering a robust, challenging course. Some of my experiments have worked and others didn’t. Here’s what I’ve learned. I think of it as my personal toolkit for teaching large-lecture courses.

You must have a strong syllabus

For large lectures to work well, the syllabus contract needs to be ironclad. Creating a syllabus that anticipates student issues and questions takes time, but it’s best to detail all of your policies in the syllabus from the start.

  1. – The noise level of 125 or more people in a room can easily escalate if talking, earbuds, or cellphones are allowed. I ban all cellphones from my lecture classes, and laptops are only allowed in the first two rows, where I can keep track of what the students are doing. This policy helps create a pleasant learning environment for all students, especially those easily distracted by low-level noise. In my largest classes, several TAs monitor and assist students so that I can focus on lecturing.

To reiterate: All these policies should be covered in the syllabus, in great detail. Leave nothing to the imagination.

Engage students during lectures

I like to break up lecture every 20 minutes or so by switching to a different activity. Even a few minutes makes a big difference in keeping students’ attention. Here are some of the tools I use to make sure my lectures don’t seem endless:

  1. – Repetition is a hallmark of learning. Pick three major themes that connect all the class material. For me they are the conservation, achieving optimal wellness through healthy lifestyle choices, and sustainability.  

Digitize and anticipate confusion

Most of my syllabi are roughly 12 pages long. Imagine how much paper it would take if I printed a copy for every student, year after year. Technology saves time, money, and—most importantly—natural resources. Digitizing your content (or at minimum your syllabus) is a must for large classes.

  1. – Campuses across the nation are investing in “smart classrooms” that have the ability to easily record while you lecture: Just press a button. These videos provide honest feedback about your lecture performance; you can also share it with your students as an additional resource. Here is an example I recorded of one of my live lectures.

Assessing performance and providing feedback

One of the biggest objections to the large-lecture format relates to the difficulty of assessment and feedback. It makes a big difference what subject area the class is in, but to run a class of 125 or more students, you usually need to digitize some of your practices. There are ways to do this where comprehension is robustly assessed, students receive quality feedback, and you maintain your sanity. For example:

  1. – Many academics have long been acquainted with Turnitin as an easy-to-use tool to detect plagiarism. Recently Turnitin launched two new functions that are wonderful additions to the large-lecture toolkit.

PeerMark facilitates random, blind, peer-to-peer review sessions on rough drafts. I use this as a credit or no credit assignment to get students active in editing and drafting. In an effort to create a safe learning environment, I make it abundantly clear that all interactions within my class, whether in person or online, must be respectful, kind, and professional.

GradeMark is the tool I use to provide electronic feedback on final versions of students’ written work. Within GradeMark, I can drag and drop common remarks, record audio comments, write free-form feedback, and upload and mark my rubric in an individual and secure environment.

You must be supported

In closing

Teaching large lectures is not for everyone, just as teaching is not for everyone. Before taking on a large class, be realistic with yourself about your personality, the needs of your discipline, and how you enjoy connecting with students. I find great satisfaction in creating original videos, writing original course readings, and constructing online activities. If your teaching style or course content requires more one-on-one time with students, then large lecture courses probably are not for you.

As students advance in their disciplines, smaller classes are essential. For general education students, though—at least in biology—a large-lecture format can deliver challenging course content and help students master learning objectives.

Many of my fellow faculty at SJSU have come together to share their large-lecture best practices. This resource was made publicly available by the Center for Faculty Development in 2014.

I’ve been privileged to expose more than 14,000 students to environmental conservation and human health issues that directly impact their lives. Engaging so many people has advantages that may not be obvious: In 2009, I created an outdoor environmental volunteer program that has contributed 12,500 work hours to conserving the environment around San Jose, California. With a few adjustments, large lecture classes can positively impact a student’s skill set and their connection to the broader community.

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