Ask an Expert

Got a question about teaching large classes? We'd love to hear from you. Send your question to and either Mike Atkinson or Allan Gedalof will reply. Questions are archived and available below.


Q. My students tend to get very restless toward the end of class and consequently, the noise level rises. What can I do to prevent this?

A. Controlling noise levels is always a challenge in large classes. As a preventative measure, enter into a "contract" with your students at the beginning of the course. You should put this in your course outline and discuss it in an early class. For example, I promise my students that I will always start class on time and never go beyond a certain time (in my case, 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m.) This gives students ample time to arrive for my class and to get to their next one. In exchange, I ask them to arrive on time and to not leave early. In this way, there is a minimum of confusion.

A second strategy is to set an "exit window" for your class. Do not end at precisely the same time every day, but choose a window (e.g., 5 minutes) during which you could end the lecture. This prevents complete anticipation of the end of class. Avoid ending with phrases such as "finally", or "one more point". This is sure-fire sign that class is over.


Q. I have trouble getting the students to settle down at the beginning of class. Any suggestions?

A. The best way that I have found to get attention is to turn out the room lights. It is very visible and people are generally familiar with the dimming of lights as a cue to begin a talk or presentation. Just prior to dimming the lights, I put on my sports coat. This in turn becomes a cue for the beginning of class. Another strategy is to turn on the overhead (or start the power point) and stand very still, facing the class without saying a word. This takes a bit longer, but eventually the class will become quiet enough for you to begin the class. Do not try to "out-shout" the class, particularly if you have a large group. It is unlikely to have the desired effect and you may end up with strained vocal chords.


Q. What is an "appropriate" number of alternatives to use for a multiple choice item?

A. Most of the data of this topic suggest that four or five alternatives is the best choice. This provides a reasonable compromise between acceptable guessing rate (in this case 25 or 20 percent) and the ability to cognitively weigh the alternatives (hold them "in your head"). Too many alternatives will make an exam item more difficult, but the increase is due to factors other than course content. Exams should be a valid reflection of the course objectives.


Q. I've heard about computer programs at UWO to detect cheating…can you give me some more information?

A. There are two packages that you might have heard about. First, there is a cheating analysis tool available in the multiple choice grading package called "Scan Exam". Scan Exam was developed by Doug Link at the Social Science Computing Lab and is an excellent marking program for multiple choice exams. After the exam is graded, you can run the cheating analysis. This option compares the responses of all students who wrote the exam, and gives you an estimate of the probability that two students would have a certain number of identical responses. To be marked as suspicious, the probability of a match happening by chance has to be extremely low -about 1 in a million. For more information, contact Doug Link at:

The second program available is for detecting plagiarism in essays and is called "". This is a relatively new service that Western has acquired. Basically, students submit an essay to and the essay is checked against known "paper mill" essays, known web resources, open e-journals, and all essays on file. The software can detect plagiarism in a string of only seven words. A report is sent to the appropriate instructor, outlining suspicious phrases, and it is then up to the instructor to decide if plagiarism has occurred and the appropriate action. For more information, see the link to Plagiarism Checking Software on EDO's home page.


Q. I have trouble getting the remote mouse for the computer to work even though I'm pointing the remote at the screen. What's wrong?

A. From time to time, the batteries in the remote do need to be changed. Instructional Media Services try to keep the remotes well-powered, but you might need to change the batteries yourself. There is a supply in the drawer where the remote is kept. Alternatively, it may be the case that you are not pointing the remote at the detector. In most of the classrooms on campus, the detector is not mounted behind the screen (or above or below)-it typically is mounted to the left or the right of the screen. The detector looks like a small, triangular box with a dark glass face. The range for the infrared remote is fairly restricted as well. You can not move more than about 10 meters away from the front of the room, and should try to keep the detector directly in front of you (you can move up to 30 degrees to the side).


Q. I really want to post my Power Point slides to the web, but can't seem to get as full-screen view. Is there any way to do this? 

 A. In general, Power Point looks pretty bad on the web-it was never designed for this purpose, rather it was designed as an in-class presentation tool. The web is better suited to handle graphic images (jpgs, gifs, etc.) or slide shows produced in Macromedia Flash. However, if you really want to post the Power Point, here are two tips. First, Power Point on the web looks much better if you use Explorer rather than Netscape for your browser (it's a Microsoft compatibility issue). Second, you can get a full-screen view (more or less) even with Netscape as long as you post a Power Point 97 version of your slide show. Apparently, more recent versions of MS Office will automatically format your presentation for a partial screen view.