Large Classes Workshop

Some thoughts and notes on teaching large classes in no particular order.

– Derek Chirnside.
With acknowledgement to conversations with Dr Sunil Kanti Dey during the Bangladesh programme, July 2009

Notes after a workshop focusing on teaching strategies for use in large classes.
pretty random and embrionic, but I think these are some of the key areas.
The terms active or engaged learning are useful search terms

  1. Strategies. Some people have approached question this through teaching strategies[1].
    What strategies can help with teaching large classes?
    These include

    1. think-pair-share[2]
    2. peer-tutoring[3] /peer instruction[4]
    3. predict-observe-explain

Some more: each of these are ways to include student interaction in a large group event. [5]

  1. Thinking time: As well, there is some very useful research on thinking time[6] and wait time, which seems to suggest that time to process included carefully in a lecture is helpful and powerful.
  2. Small group work:
    1. the jigsaw approach[7]
    2. collaborative problem solving

Other comments and observations

  1. The problem of large classes. There is some research that goes back to the 1950s mainly in American universities that looks at the issue around large classes. There is also some work that has been done in African countries where large classes are common.
    The problems are around the difficulty of

    1. Assessment
    2. Organisation
    3. covering content inside classes and still allowing for interaction and activity.

The critical point is that in a large class not many students can get to answer a question so the strategies have included getting students to talk to one another after a time of thinking, and then maybe followed by a lecturer demonstration or a lecturer answering the questions.
Eric Mazur at Harvard University has done a lot of work on this.

Recommendations: In considering the problem of large classes teachers need to consider what strategies they are using, and choose strategies that are

  • well founded in research
  • simple to implement
  • and maximize interaction between students.

Properly understanding these, integrating them into classroom instruction, good organization are the challenges we face with large classes.

  1. Group work probably requires special emphasis.
    One option is to set work to be done by groups of students outside of class with some form of presentation during class. This kind of work needs to be carefully scaffolded. Good group work skills do not emerge unaided or naturally[8]. The idea of group roles, group processes and tips on how to work together, are important for students.
  2. Taking content out of class time. There is a trend in some American high schools and universities to take content delivery out of the formal class sessions.
    1. For example, in a Science class, students may watch a small video presentation in their own time. This may be 20-25 minutes worth. They are required to watch it actively, jotting down the main points and any questions and comments that occur to them. These questions and comments then are brought to the whole class time and some interaction and responses from the lecturer then follows.
    2. Another case is in literature and drama classes. Students read a drama and respond to small questions, maybe with some handed in work and then the class time, even with a large class of 120, can include some interaction, some feedback and some specific comments by the lecturer.
    3. This is also used online. Students read material and then join an online class and engage in discussion about it. The research suggests it is critical how the tutorials are set up and carefully constructed questions and activities work much better than any lack of structure or direction.
  3. Demonstrations and role-play. The careful use of experiments, demonstrations or small role-plays also can help in large classes[9]. If in a 50 minute class, five or six minutes are given over to a role-play with two or three minutes of discussion following, the research suggests this change in style is benefit xxx to students’ ability to observe information and to learn. These are some skills that it is worth lecturers and teachers learning.

Other factors

  1. Assessment can become a challenge in a large class. Small groups can work together on a single problem together and provide a single answer. This has been well researched at the University of Maryland, down the marking from the point of view of the teacher and students in the research, we learn, do benefit from their talk and interaction around a carefully chosen problem.
  2. Organization of large classes. This is critical. Good routines and behaviour patterns need to be worked on. If you are going to allow students to talk in pairs, there needs to be some clear boundaries so that how you attract their attention and draw them back together. It is of interest to note other strategies such as the one-minute paper. In this, students get one minute to write a couple of sentences on something they didn’t understand during that lecture. In a class of 100, if the lecturer got a one-minute paper from 20 students every now and then, they can get enough feedback to help the future planning of their lessons.

[1] Classroom Instruction That Works by R. J. Marzano, D. J. Pickering, and J. E. Pollock, 2001, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.  (AND :, a great summary)

[2] A good summary: and also

The origin of the term : Lyman, F., 1987, Think-Pair-Share: An expanding teaching technique: MAA-CIE Cooperative News, v. 1, p. 1-2.

Research summary: Gunter, M. A., Estes, T. H., & Schwab, J. H. (1999). Instruction: A Models Approach, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

[3] Whitman, N. A. Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn Twice. Washington, D.C.: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.4. Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1988

[4] The populariser of the term peer instruction, Eric mazur:


[6] Often referred to as the Pause Procedure.  Rowe, M. B. (1976). “The pausing principle – Two invitations to inquiry”, Research on College Science Teaching, 5, 258. and Rowe, M. B. (1980). “Pausing principles and their effect on reasoning in science”, New Directions in Community Colleges, 31, 27.


[8] Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. (1991). Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.  A key reference.

[9] Summary: