Ideas vary as to what constitutes large classes. Some people say it’s the 200-person chemistry class or the 400-person nutrition class at a major research university. At a smaller liberal arts college, a 35- to 40-person psychology class may seem big, whereas at many higher education institutions, that is just an average size. When a college is filling classes in rooms the size of very large movie theaters, we can probably all agree that those are enormous classes.
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At one point, I was so used to teaching classes that hovered between 15 and 45 students that when I got assigned 70-person classes, I worried that I would need to drastically alter my teaching style. I had figured out how to master facilitating meaningful discussions in those smaller classes, but I wondered how I could get discussion going with so many students. Would I have to either get rid of, or really sacrifice, the open and intimate aspects of my classes — which I regard as hallmarks of sound pedagogy?
Eventually, I learned how to effectively teach larger classes. So I’d like to share some fruitful tactics and strategies for dealing with them.
For starters, when teaching large classes at colleges and universities that boast small class size and low student/teacher ratios on their websites and on campus tours, it is important to comment on this early on in the classroom. On the first day of such a large class, I always acknowledge that I understand that many students probably chose the university because of the sense of a family atmosphere — because it was a place where “everyone knows your name” — and that this class may not have been what they initially bargained for. At my university, we offer few large classes; in fact, only three classrooms on the entire campus are built to accommodate more than 68 students. So my large Introduction to Sociology class is an anomaly.
It’s troubling to me that I am part of a broken promise on day one. I explain to them that even the size is sociological, that an individual’s choices and behavioral options are constrained by social forces imposed by institutional structures. I also tell them that, as we will discuss later in the course, aspects of their lives including their education have been and will continue to be McDonaldized — that bureaucracies which we all inhabit and will also explore in the course emphasize profit, the outcome of which can be alienating. I explain to the students at the outset that I craft my teaching in ways to counter the disconnection and isolation that is often experienced in large classes.
The vast majority of my large introductory classes are composed of first-year students, many of whom are also first generation. And depending on the day classes start and the time of day, sometimes mine is the very first college classroom they’ve ever been in. I try to possess a beginner’s mind that first day, recognizing that it can be overwhelming for new students to walk into a classroom with so many people. So the first thing I do when I enter the large classroom is to play loudly Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds.” Hearing “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right” is a down-to-earth, fun and easygoing way of letting students know we are all in this together.
At the same time, I ask students to take out a piece of paper and fold it, tenting it on their table with their name in bold print. And, although this is contested among colleagues, I do take attendance. I do this orally for about two to three weeks, at which point I then shift to printing out the sheets and distributing them for students to initial each class period. Usually, I am able to learn the names of at least half the class by the third week, and doing attendance orally helps to make that possible.
The photo roster feature on Blackboard is also helpful for making names and faces more indelible in my memory, and I review it periodically. That is especially important when I notice students who do not talk in class submitting exemplary work. It ensures that I know who they are and can invite them to office hours to help them develop more confidence for sharing with the class, or to encourage them to consider a sociology major or minor or at least more sociology courses. At the same time, we know that anonymity poses a great risk for students already in jeopardy academically and psychosocially, and by doing everything to immediately set the tone that we are collectively reducing anonymity is a worthwhile and important, albeit ambitious, endeavor.
In attempting to get to know my students as learners and human beings with their own interests, hopes, fears, dreams and passions, I also post a questionnaire electronically that I ask students to complete, print out and submit to me in class. Questions range from asking about their course schedule that semester to whether they hold a job outside school or have caregiving responsibilities for elderly or ill relatives or children. I also ask about their favorite books, music and movies, as well as social problems that concern them.
And I always ask what I can do to be the best teacher for them — about their learning style and personality and what I should be aware of that might make learning about the material more challenging or painful for them. It is here that I often find out about mental-health issues, body image issues or identity issues; whether they have experienced a history of sexual and domestic violence or extreme poverty; or if they have parents who are divorcing, are addicted, have died or are in prison. Some of the responses break my heart, but they are all informative.
I collect upwards of 125 of these student forms across all my courses every semester and review them, placing an asterisk at the top of any that necessitate a little more attention and dialogue. And I return to the next class session and read off the names of everyone who should plan to see me in that week or the subsequent week. I make it abundantly clear that nothing is negative in this since, after all, I have usually read off the names of three-quarters of the people in the class. I simply explain that some forms generate a more time-sensitive need for seeing me. I also strongly recommend that those whose names weren’t called should still seek me out so I can get to know them.
So within the first two weeks, I easily wind up seeing half the students in an introductory class. Some students choose to never see me and — unfortunately and predictably — they are generally the same ones who wind up on academic probation or not returning for future semesters. The large majority of students who come to office hours tell me that they were initially a little intimidated, are glad they came and are grateful for the additional resources and recommendations I give in that setting that are specific to each person. And it is one more opportunity for me to learn their names and what is capturing their interest or worrying them in the course and in their college experience.
Generating Class Discussion
All these efforts to reduce anonymity are paramount for cultivating the conditions necessary to generate meaningful and impactful class discussion. I have never taken the position that the only way to have discussions in large classes is to break everyone into small groups. I do that, for sure, and I also assign a small group project and presentation for the end of the semester for them to teach their peers.
But I also create possibilities for discussion among all the students. In some ways, if you were to observe me, you might think my class resembles a talk show: I physically move around the room and communicate from the back of it, as well, generating conversations with people and getting the students to talk with one another.
Having opportunities for students to speak in front of dozens of their peers becomes excellent practice for when they will have to do this during their end-of-semester presentation. Some students also remark that my classes become interdisciplinary experiences that dovetail with public speaking classes, for example.
I frequently assign short in-class and out-of-class writings and collect them and read parts of them aloud anonymously so people have the opportunity to hear everyone; in this way, all voices in the room become audible, especially amid the most controversial topics in the course. It also becomes a great opportunity for the quietest students to be heard and for the frequently vocal participants to listen closely to their classmates. Sometimes, I have asked students to anonymously write responses in class to a guest speaker or film or to pose discussion questions for the class. I have circulated a basket where people put in comments and then take one to read aloud that is not theirs. It is powerful when students hear their work being read aloud by others.
I routinely receive emotionally intense emails from some students grappling on personal and societal levels with what we are learning, and I have occasionally asked permission from them to read aloud anonymously the content from the message. In asking students for feedback about what has helped to make these large classes feel smaller and more intimate, one student remarked to me, “If I had to choose, I would say I enjoyed when you read the letters from my classmates. When coming into class, we all had various struggles and obstacles we had experienced, and we were unaware of what others around us were going through. I loved hearing their stories, realizing that it wasn’t just me that had struggled and that some of my classmates had been struggling with the exact same issue. It felt good knowing I wasn’t alone and that someone else knew what I was feeling. Many of the stories and experiences you shared from your personal life definitely added to the intimacy of the class.” Another student said, “You don’t lecture — you have a conversation with us. The energy and vibe you create, well, the class never felt as big as it actually was.”
One of the most significant and powerful mentoring experiences I have enjoyed in 21 years of teaching has been with a young man who initially emailed me after my class presentation on body image and eating disorders. In that message, he disclosed his experiences struggling with self-harm, specifically anorexia and cutting. That email exchange led him to enroll in five more courses with me, significant involvement in the sociology club, which I advise, and a continued conversation and friendship that has been sustained since he graduated in 2016.
This young man started off as an average student in a large class who truly blossomed, academically and emotionally, in his future classes with me. His feminist voice for change around issues of violence against women was powerfully felt. And his wisdom, far beyond his years, was hard won as the result of witnessing a rapid succession of deaths of those close to him. So I invited him to speak in my large classes about body image, self-harm, masculinity, loss, trauma, recovery and what it means to be an ally. He quickly became an exquisite model for his peers.
The group project that I assign has also led to student involvement on speaker panels that I host in class and at evening events. A few years ago, another young man was part of a group investigating sociological aspects of fatherhood, and he spoke about helping his mother escape a lethal domestic violence situation. Since that moment, I have regularly invited him to speak at my classes on the effects of domestic violence on children, and he has spoken passionately and convincingly, serving as a true peer mentor — reinforcing the importance of bystander intervention and an alternative to toxic masculinity. He went on to become the president of the student body, where he continues as a role model.
At a recent conference, I was speaking with a colleague relatively new to teaching who expressed a lot of angst about her upcoming schedule with a large class. Another woman who was part of the conversation suggested she try things like clickers. Others assumed they had to give up on discussions altogether and resort to traditional lectures — incorporating PowerPoint and game-based learning platforms like Kahoot. Implied in all of those suggestions is that we must pile on more methods and gimmicks to keep students’ attention in a large class and acquiesce to the corporate mandate behind the impetus for large classes that we should not just educate but also entertain the “customer.”
I hope to convey to readers what I told those colleagues: that the heart of artful, transformative pedagogy is to connect with students and to create an atmosphere in which they can engage with one another over stimulating ideas. That happens when we honor and retain the authenticity and integrity of the methods that are distinctly ours as teachers. It may mean that we need to simultaneously think about size but not fixate on it, allowing it to help us consider new ways of being and knowing in the classroom.
Note: A version of this article was published in Inside Higher Ed on September 19, 2017.