Large Classes: A Teaching Guide Large Class Introduction

The Demand for Quality Undergraduate Education

A number of factors have recently placed greater demands and pressures on institutions of higher education to provide a quality undergraduate education. In 1994, the Wingspread Group outlined the following quality performance goals for graduates of U.S. colleges and universities ("Quality Assurance in Undergraduate Education: What the Public Expects." Report from a Wingspread Conference. ECS, Denver, CO.)

Technical competence in a given field

Communications, computational, and technological literacy

Ability to gain and apply new knowledge and skills, as needed

Ability to function well in a global community

Range of attitudes including flexibility, adaptability, ease with diversity, motivation, ethical and civil behavior, creativity, resourcefulness and the ability to work with others, especially in team

Demonstrated ability to use all of the above to address problems in complex, real-world setting

The Large Classes Solution

The challenge to institutions to provide a high-quality undergraduate education comes when many colleges and universities are also facing budget crises. A solution that many institutions have turned to is large classes. Although no consensus exists as to the exact size of a large class, the term generally applies to classes with more than 60 students. Some regard a large class as one with more than 100 students. Large classes may be a cost-effective solution to budget crises at some institutions, but they have been criticized by teachers and students. According to The Teaching Professor, difficulties encountered by instructors of large classes include:

Involving students in active learning

Personalizing the environment

Working with diverse student needs and background

Managing classroom disruptions

Adapting one's teaching style to the large lecture situation

Addressing these concerns over the long-term

Instructors frequently feel that teaching large courses is an unrewarded (especially at a research-oriented institution), ineffective or, at the very least, challenging situation. At one time, assignments to teach large classes were reserved for senior faculty who were counted on to showcase the discipline and attract new students. Now, however, large classes maybe the least prestigious and most dreaded teaching assignment. And for many faculty, regardless of experience, teaching a large class seems difficult to do well. The large-class experience also challenges students. Most large-class courses are introductory and intended for first and second-year students for whom learning in a large class is a new experience. They must learn to get by with less individual attention than they may have received in high school. As a result, some students may feel anonymous in the lecture and this anonymity may make it harder for them to become motivated to keep up. Another obstacle is that with so many of their peers listening, many students in large classes feel too intimidated to ask questions or too overwhelmed by the material to approach instructors or others for help.


Promoting Active Learning in Large Classes

We often think that learning occurs in proportion to class size: The smaller the class, the more students learn. However, while research shows that small classes provide more opportunities for feedback and discussion than large classes, as well as greater student satisfaction, it does not suggest that class size is necessarily a correlate of student learning. What counts is not the size of the class, but the quality of the teaching. The research suggests that the key to effective instruction and student learning, regardless of class size, is engaging students in active learning. Wulff et al. (1987) found that students separated the quality of instruction from class size. Student comments identified four characteristics of successful professors

Instructor competency: knowledge and experience with the subject

Instructor concern: interest in assisting students and improving the learning proces

Instructor energy level: enthusiasm about the subject

Instructor speaking ability: interesting, well-paced presentation of course material

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