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Mary Poffenroth
Credit: Daniel Dobrzensky

Large lectures 101

Climbing the terra-cotta tiled steps of the oldest building on campus, I see a student ahead holding open the door for me. I shuffle my oversized black-wheeled bag past him and make my way into the auditorium at San Jose State University (SJSU) in California. Head up and shoulders straight, I glide past the back 10 rows, then the middle 15, and finally the front seven. Signaling my teaching assistant (TA) to turn the house lights down a quarter, I switch on the handheld microphone and welcome my new class of 435 human biology students. It’s show time.  

I love the look I get from people, especially fellow academics, when I tell them I teach classes this size—and love it. It’s disbelief mixed with a suspicion that I might be a little out of my mind.

Teaching roughly 2000 students every year helps me achieve these goals on a scale that I could never achieve by teaching smaller courses.

—Mary Poffenroth

It’s true though: I do love teaching large classes. It allows me to connect with more students.

I entered higher education because, like many, I wanted to make a difference. Specifically, I wanted to make a difference in the health of the global environment and the lives of students. Teaching roughly 2000 students every year helps me achieve these goals on a scale that I could never achieve by teaching smaller courses.

Since 2007, I have explored ways to make the large-lecture format engaging for students while keeping my sanity and delivering a robust, challenging course. Some of my experiments have worked and others didn’t. Here’s what I’ve learned. I think of it as my personal toolkit for teaching large-lecture courses.

You must have a strong syllabus

For large lectures to work well, the syllabus contract needs to be ironclad. Creating a syllabus that anticipates student issues and questions takes time, but it’s best to detail all of your policies in the syllabus from the start.

Large lectures thrive on efficiency and clear directions. Ambiguity creates confusion for students and hours of wasted work for you. So err on the side of explaining policies ad nauseam; the syllabus is the place to do it. Additionally, save paper by only releasing syllabi electronically. A few important areas to be extremely clear on are:

  • Makeup policies – As a new instructor teaching my first class of 125 students, I had an open-door makeup policy. You can probably imagine what a nightmare that was. Today, I recommend setting a strict policy around missed exams, operating within your campus’ guidelines, with a no-penalty caveat for well-documented extenuating circumstances.
  • Schedule – Clearly list all lecture dates, lecture topics, and important deadlines in a single grid. Think of your class schedule like an airline schedule: Students should be able to easily find, in one place, exact dates and times, locations, topics, deadlines, and all other important details.
  • Grades – Keeping grades organized and delivered to students in a timely, Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)-approved format is where technology really thrives. Most campuses now offer their faculty a learning-management system (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, and others. All LMS’s have a feature to help you safely and privately deliver grades to students. If your campus does not have an LMS, Turnitin has a grade-book feature that will allow you the same functions for both electronic and hard copy assignments. Lastly, in your syllabus, make students responsible for regularly checking the accuracy of their grades and reaching out to you within a few weeks—maximum—if there is an issue.
  • Strong classroom conduct policies – The noise level of 125 or more people in a room can easily escalate if talking, earbuds, or cellphones are allowed. I ban all cellphones from my lecture classes, and laptops are only allowed in the first two rows, where I can keep track of what the students are doing. This policy helps create a pleasant learning environment for all students, especially those easily distracted by low-level noise. In my largest classes, several TAs monitor and assist students so that I can focus on lecturing.

To reiterate: All these policies should be covered in the syllabus, in great detail. Leave nothing to the imagination.

TA handbook

TA handbook

Credit: Mary Poffenroth

Engage students during lectures

I like to break up lecture every 20 minutes or so by switching to a different activity. Even a few minutes makes a big difference in keeping students’ attention. Here are some of the tools I use to make sure my lectures don’t seem endless:

  • Short videos – A relevant story is an impactful way to complement and break up a lecture. Finding great stories that are scientifically sound and 5 to 10 minutes long can be challenging. My favorite source for in-lecture, Web-based, free videos is the National Science Foundation-funded QUEST by KQED. Here you can find videos that are concise and that pull from a range of topics, including biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, and environmental science. 
  • Small group discussions – Even in a large class, you can have student discussions. To increase the odds of a vigorous debate, I prefer to give my students prompts they are likely to have strong opinions about. I usually assign students a simple one-or-two-page scholarly reading to complete before class, on a popular topic that has distinct positions for and against.
  • Treasure hunt for answers – It can be difficult for students to connect and meet one another in a large lecture course. One way I get students to introduce themselves to each other and work together is through an activity I call a treasure hunt for answers. Students must complete and submit an in-class worksheet during a preset amount of time, using only other students for information. For example, to teach 300 human biology students about select anatomical features and functions of the human brain, each student was given one of six possible numbered squares with details on just one aspect of the worksheet they needed to complete. All electronics are banned, so students must move around the room, meeting and introducing themselves to other students to find the other five pieces of their worksheet puzzle.
  • Find three major themes – Repetition is a hallmark of learning. Pick three major themes that connect all the class material. For me they are the conservation, achieving optimal wellness through healthy lifestyle choices, and sustainability.  

Digitize and anticipate confusion

Most of my syllabi are roughly 12 pages long. Imagine how much paper it would take if I printed a copy for every student, year after year. Technology saves time, money, and—most importantly—natural resources. Digitizing your content (or at minimum your syllabus) is a must for large classes.

  • Learning management systems, redux – An LMS allows you to have a protected Web space for your course. Although LMS platforms vary, most have basic functions such as folders, file uploading, quizzes, hyperlinking to external websites, discussion among registered students, and FERPA-compliant grade books. Check with your campus to see if an LMS is offered and supported. If it is, use it! It would be impossible for me to run a class of 435 students without a strong, easy-to-navigate LMS.
  • To slide-deck or not to slide-deck – That is the question. I use a slide deck (which can be created via Microsoft PowerPoint and other platforms such as Google Drive or Prezi) as a foundation. But I never read my slides to my students. I use a slide deck while I’m lecturing as a foundation to keep students visually engaged. I also provide students with a digital copy of my slides, via the LMS. This relieves the stress students often feel to get everything from the slide down in their notes during class. Students are freed up to be present and engaged during lecture.
  • Tutorial videos – I save an enormous amount of time fielding repeated questions by creating tutorial videos and a frequently asked questions page. Empowering students to answer their own questions—or at least to seek answers on their own—will save your sanity and help instill self-reliance. Before the class begins, I create an introduction lecture-capture video to welcome students to the class and give them all the major details. They see my screen, which may be a slide deck, document, or website, and hear my voice. This is an easy way to take students, step by step, through confusing or ambiguous elements. It helps decrease confusion right up front and allows you to quickly point students to a personally tailored video when they need extra assistance. I also create screen captures that explain a single concept or an entire lecture. Tutorial videos can be created using QuickTime, Camtasia Studio, Jing, and many other software options that are widely available. Here is an example of my introduction video for Biology 10, which serves 125 students per section:
  • Live lecture recording – Campuses across the nation are investing in “smart classrooms” that have the ability to easily record while you lecture: Just press a button. These videos provide honest feedback about your lecture performance; you can also share it with your students as an additional resource. Here is an example I recorded of one of my live lectures.

Assessing performance and providing feedback

One of the biggest objections to the large-lecture format relates to the difficulty of assessment and feedback. It makes a big difference what subject area the class is in, but to run a class of 125 or more students, you usually need to digitize some of your practices. There are ways to do this where comprehension is robustly assessed, students receive quality feedback, and you maintain your sanity. For example:

  • Autoscored quizzes – Consistently recurring quizzes help students stay on top of the reading and other activities and commit content to memory. Creating an automatically scored quiz will take a lot of data-entry work off your plate. Utilizing your LMS for this function is best, because it automatically feeds scores into each student’s grade book. Bonus tip: For my autoscored quizzes, I create a bank of three or four times the number of questions I need; the computer pulls randomly from the list so that each student has his or her own customized quiz. There are some wonderful in-class electronic quiz platforms such as Via Response.
  • Detailed grading rubrics – This saves time and gives students a target to aim for and detailed feedback on where their graded assignment stands. My rubrics can be pages long, and I post them in our LMS along with the assignment.
  • Educational Testing Service's Criterion – Automated quizzes are great, but you can’t do writing assignments this way: Grading them is inevitably time-intensive. Criterion is a website that gives students computer-generated feedback on grammar and spelling. It’s more robust than a word-processor check. I require students to submit their rough drafts a minimum of 5 weeks before the final version is due, ensuring that they have scrutinized and improved their drafts before faculty grading.
  • Turnitin’s PeerMark and GradeMark functions – Many academics have long been acquainted with Turnitin as an easy-to-use tool to detect plagiarism. Recently Turnitin launched two new functions that are wonderful additions to the large-lecture toolkit.

PeerMark facilitates random, blind, peer-to-peer review sessions on rough drafts. I use this as a credit or no credit assignment to get students active in editing and drafting. In an effort to create a safe learning environment, I make it abundantly clear that all interactions within my class, whether in person or online, must be respectful, kind, and professional.

GradeMark is the tool I use to provide electronic feedback on final versions of students’ written work. Within GradeMark, I can drag and drop common remarks, record audio comments, write free-form feedback, and upload and mark my rubric in an individual and secure environment.

You must be supported

There’s no way to run a successful large class without your department’s and campus’ support. A sufficient number of TAs is a must; how many is required depends on the size and complexity of the course. High-quality TAs are essential, as is training them to be leaders and self-managers. My large-lecture courses allow my TAs to gain real-world experience in a high stress environment, with opportunities for leadership, lasting contributions, and creativity.

In closing

Teaching large lectures is not for everyone, just as teaching is not for everyone. Before taking on a large class, be realistic with yourself about your personality, the needs of your discipline, and how you enjoy connecting with students. I find great satisfaction in creating original videos, writing original course readings, and constructing online activities. If your teaching style or course content requires more one-on-one time with students, then large lecture courses probably are not for you.

As students advance in their disciplines, smaller classes are essential. For general education students, though—at least in biology—a large-lecture format can deliver challenging course content and help students master learning objectives.

Many of my fellow faculty at SJSU have come together to share their large-lecture best practices. This resource was made publicly available by the Center for Faculty Development in 2014.

I’ve been privileged to expose more than 14,000 students to environmental conservation and human health issues that directly impact their lives. Engaging so many people has advantages that may not be obvious: In 2009, I created an outdoor environmental volunteer program that has contributed 12,500 work hours to conserving the environment around San Jose, California. With a few adjustments, large lecture classes can positively impact a student’s skill set and their connection to the broader community.

<p>Mary Poffenroth</p>

Mary Poffenroth

Credit: Daniel Dobrzensky

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