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Dealing with Large Class Sizes

Hi everyone! I am sorry that this is my first post of the new school year; getting back into the swing of things has been more difficult for me this semester than in the past.

I would love to hear from everyone about how you deal with large class sizes. I am teaching a graduate course that only meets once a week for two and half hours. I love this kind of class, because I think there can be some really in-depth and meaningful discussion around the topics in the course. The only challenge with this is that I have 28 students, which quite unfortunately isn’t conducive to in-depth discussion. I have found myself lecturing on the material for the semester and something feels off about it. I am having a hard time engaging them in the same way I do my undergraduates. Is it the longer time frame? Not as much discussion as I would like?

Another challenge with this is that they almost all come from work, making them exhausted and even making a few of them uninterested. There is nothing I can do to change the set-up of the class (once per week, 2.5 hours, 28 students), so instead I am asking the hive mind what I can do, both this semester and if this occurs again in the future, to make it more interactive and discussion-oriented with such a large number. [One suggestion would be to break them up into smaller groups, but I have found this consistently lends itself to off-topic work and personal discussion.]

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2 comments to Dealing with Large Class Sizes

  • This is a great question. I taught a similarly scheduled course: we met once weekly in the evening, and many of my students arrived directly from work. Understandably, they were exhausted (and I feel that honoring this is important, e.g. my post here: http://teachingcircle.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/an-honest-welcome/).
    My brief suggestions (though you may have tried all these things) are to:
    1. Build participation into the syllabus/evaluation. Even though my course was classified as a standard “lecture” in the course listings, putting participation on my syllabus meant I was able to explain, from day one, that I was looking for meaningful – even if not plentiful – participation.
    2. Try to make participation less scary, even while prioritizing it highly. Seems like a contradiction, perhaps, but once you’ve set up participation as a “graded” component of the course, I think it’s important to validate and encourage “imperfect” participation. If it feels like a test, students will avoid it. If they recognize that you’ll take what they say and run with it, or use it to build towards another question, or that it’s ok to offer a half-thought to the room, then it will become a little less intimidating.
    3. Commit to lecturing no more than half or two-thirds of the course period. When discussion feels like “pulling teeth” you may find you want to retreat into lecturing, but push yourself to try another discussion/participation strategy or activity the next week. On that note —
    4. Vary the “discussion” portion so it’s not the same format every week. Try alternating small group discussion, pair work, whole-group discussion (even if it ends up being instructor-centered/instructor-driven), slightly playful activities (mock debates, brainstorms with post-it notes).
    5. Make it personal. For discussion, raise issues that engage students’ lives – whether that’s a policy issue they’re likely to disagree about, or the opportunity to work with a partner on editing the paper they’re writing for you.
    6. Use multi-media materials. Some weeks, I’d lecture for half the period, then we’d watch a video for ¼ of the session, then discuss it for the final ¼. The input of something – besides the lecture – that you know everyone has in common usually sparks engaging conversation (and doesn’t make students feel like in speaking they have to prove they did the reading).
    7. Guest speakers! Usually they’ll prompt a whole set of questions and ideas that might not have entered the room otherwise.
    8. Float & nudge during small group discussions. Wander around and pay attention to the small group dynamics. Is there a group who is awkwardly not talking? Is there one that is clearly “off-topic”? Float over to them and join them for a bit, asking questions, connecting to the thing that seemed off-topic, nudging them to get the conversation flowing.
    9. Don’t be too afraid of losing control. Let disagreements erupt a little bit, let conversations get a little personal, let silence be ok for a minute, let laughter or acknowledgement of confusion puncture the formality. These little things let the classroom feel more like a place of experimentation and imperfection, which is only a good thing when it comes to participation.
    10. Finally, it’s ok to put a limit on frequent talkers. When discussion is slow to start, you may feel you shouldn’t limit anyone’s participation, but asking someone to hold back and/or openly acknowledging your desire to hear from others isn’t a bad thing if it’s making space for those who might feel less inclined to speak.

  • What about attendance?

    I include “class participation” in calculating the final grade. When I was first teaching in a lecture hall forum I would send around a class roster and the students would initial next to their name under the coordinating date. This seemed like the most effective way to take attendance and save valuable instructional class time.

    Then I realized that the most out spoken student had signed in one evening but he was not in the class. Hmmm… Then it all changed and I went back to going one by one calling each of the students names for recording attendance. There must be a more time saving way to accurately take attendance. Any suggestions? Thank you! Susan