About Teaching Large Classes

Why are we teaching large classes anyway?

In the face of growing programs and shrinking funds, more of us are having to teach large classes for two main reasons: To accommodate with a stable or shrinking complement of faculty members the burgeoning number of students who deserve to be in university, and often as a way to preserve smaller classes in some other parts of our programs. Not to put too fine a point upon it, larger class size is a problem and should always and everywhere be resisted. We cannot forget, nor can we let those who have put us in this situation forget, that creating large classes is fundamentally contrary to what university teaching is supposed to do: Foster the growth of individuals, and encourage them in their individuality so that they become independent, creative, self-motivated, critical thinkers and learners. But given that in the current situation we are for a variety of reasons obliged to accept the students who deserve to be here, and that we have to teach some large classes as a way to keep other ones small, we might as well do the best job we can of it.

Part of the problem with this is that we are so ill-prepared for this task in every way. Far too often, we lack the individual and institutional will and the technical and staff support to do this job well. It is a bitter irony that at what is supposedly the highest level of education, we have not only the least amount of teacher training, but that we have also earned our past successes and current jobs by developing skills that seem to be and often are counter-indicative to good teaching, especially at introductory levels where larger classes seem to be most vigorously proliferating. We prepare for a profession, a large part of which is very public, by doing things that are intensely private, often idiosyncratic. Given this, it is no surprise that most of us come to the profession having experienced predominantly negative examples of how to teach, and many simply accept that as the way university teaching is done given what that part of our job is worth. We encourage you to resist such thinking. Teaching is a noble profession, and the work we do is of inestimable value. Students in large classes earned their way into university the same way students in small classes did, and they deserve the best education we can give them. What's more, one of the few advantages for the instructor of the large class over the small one lies in the added excitement experienced after giving a very good lecture to a large class. Teach a large class really well, and it could be hours before you touch down again and realize that you'd better start preparing to do it again. A good class repays all of the effort you put into it, although you will soon realize that preparing and delivering that good class to a mass of students involves an awful lot of work.

We leave this topic with a familiar anecdote that corroborates the low value typically placed on teaching in the academy. It is provided by colleagues in all disciplines who, in an annual exercise of vernal thanksgiving on campuses across the country, repeat the formula "Thank god the students are gone. Now I can get on with my real work." Well, if you take on teaching large classes, that will become a huge part of your real work, and you may have to work hard to get your colleagues to understand and recognize the contribution you are making to your department, discipline, and institution, and to give your course the equipment, resources, and staff you will need to make it work well.

Despite these reservations and others detailed below about teaching large classes, we would be misleading if we did not also acknowledge that on good days, when you have the right resources and have done the preparation required to use them in a manner commensurate with the size of the class, and things have gone really well, both students and instructors can experience a buzz, a rush that comes from having shared an exciting common experience. And that excitement can go beyond that generated by small classes: scale can affect a class and its members both positively and negatively.

Two caveats regarding how to take and use what follows:

  • Everything that follows is to be understood as a series of suggestions rather than an attempt to be definitive, prescriptive or normative, and no one will want to or be able to do all of the things described or discussed. While we have tried in what follows to set out strategies, techniques, policies, and practices that will be as widely adoptable and adaptable as possible, in the end part of our value as teachers is that we do the job in unique ways. In large classes, where performance takes on greater importance than in smaller classes, individual personality and style figure very prominently indeed: We teach the way we teach because we are who we are, teaching what we teach. Nevertheless, many basic things are transferable and broadly desirable, and we have tried to focus on those and to offer a range of suggestions when we go beyond them. While what follows is written with the novice teacher of large classes in mind, we hope that experienced teachers will find things of use to them also.
  • The second caveat concerns the content and structure of lectures for large classes. These are subjects we will not discuss at any great length here. For the most part, sound practice in these aspects of lecture preparation is the same for large and small classes: Solid content, clear and apparent organization and signposts, lucid thinking, are hallmarks of good teaching regardless of class size, and there are many places that the inquiring university teacher can turn to for help with basic lecturing techniques and strategies. Here, we will only discuss issues of content and organization where they are at least in part driven by the particular circumstances of working in large classes.