Staying Afloat in a Sea of Faces: Tips for Handling Large Classes

Presented by Dick Day
Thursday September 27, 2001


From an Instructor's Viewpoint
From a Student's Viewpoint
From a TA's Viewpoint


Before You Start
Creating the Lecture/Presentation for Large Classes
How can we increase a sense of contact? Dealing with Impersonality and Anonymity
What do you do if you loose their attention?
How can you address the reduced flexibility in evaluations?

Part 1: Problems

From an Instructor's Viewpoint

  1. Logistics
    • Class numbers - from 50 to over 1,000.
    • Disparity in background/preparation of the students.
    • Greater chance of having teaching assistants (TA’s), and more trouble managing TA’s so that quality control between TA’s becomes and issue.
    • Scaling up: everything must be scaled up - from resources such as handouts to projects.
    • Logistical problems with course aspects - midterms, labs, etc. are more difficult to arrange because of scheduling problems when dealing with so many people.
    • Normal presentation style seems less effective in large classes - everything must be larger.
  2. Physical Constraints
    • Less possibility of communication in a large classroom.
    • Distance of instructor from students.
    • Room inflexibility, e.g. bolted furniture which limits some of the teaching and assessment methods that can be used.
    • Ambient noise level is greater with more people.
    • Acoustics of a large room make it more difficult to hear.
    • Media issues: visual communication becomes more difficult. For example, if a class is too large, you can’t use the blackboard because the writing is too difficult to see.
  3. Loss of Contact
    • A class seems big if "I can’t tell if they are getting it" - loss of contact with students.
    • Less opportunity for students to interact with each other and with the professor.
    • You don’t know your students personally.
    • Can't learn names - so anonymity of students increases, and the sense of imporsonality.
    • Out-of-class communication becomes more difficult: How to serve large numbers with e-mail? There are increasing expectations on your time.
    • Distance is a problem, both physical and psychological. People in the back rows are not "in" the class.
    • First year students not used to huge class and therefore their expectations for behaviour are different.
    • Differences in role of professor: from facilitator to performer, from Guide or Coach to Sage on the Stage.
    • Intimidation of numbers for the professor facing a sea of faces. (Note: There is a prevalence of introverts among excellent lecturers).
    • With increasing anonymity, student sense of responsibility to the class decreases.
    • With larger numbers and anonymity, there is an increased chance you will have someone who will be disruptive in class.
    • Crowd control - students become a mass rather than individuals: they feel they can arrive late and/or leave early because they are anonymous.
    • More trouble maintaining attention and order - or concerns that it will be more problematic as a result of the larger numbers.
  4. Reduced Flexibility in Evaluation
    • Evaluation becomes more difficult.
    • Restriction on assignment number and types because of grading problems posed by numbers.
    • Academic dishonesty often increases. This is likely the result of:
      a) increased anonymity
      b) rules of probability: with increased number of students there is an increased chance someone will cheat.

From a Student's Viewpoint

  1. Logistics
    • Resources. Students know that they have fewer resources available to them, because more students are accessing the same resources. They have even less access to the professor than the TA.
    • Inability to choose electives they want because of scheduling difficulties caused by the large courses.
  2. Physical Constraints
    • Seats are uncomfortable.
    • Room temperatures are too hot or too cold.
    • They can’t see or hear professor because they are too far away.
  3. Loss of Contact
    • Too little time for personal interaction with instructor.
    • Too little time for questions, discussion.
    • Isolation/anonymity - from the professor and from each other.
    • Fear of getting lost and not being able to ask for clarification because of the decreased chance for interaction.
    • Both the Professor and the TA seem less approachable.
    • Noise and crowd control: students cannot hear the lecture because it is too noisy.
    • Fear of "speaking out" in front of many people.
    • Rejection for speaking out. Those who do speak out may feel peer pressure to stop, because they are ‘taking time away’ from the expert.
    • In a tutorial, if you do speak, the professor will not hear what you have to contribute.
    • Students may feel they can only have contact with "lower level" (the TA).
    • Students are confused, but no one seems to care. Many don’t have English as their first language.
    • There is a sense of decreased responsibility in an large, anonymous class.
  4. Reduced Flexibility in Evaluation
    • Lack of fairness perceived in a multi-sectioned class or in tutorials because of differences in quality between:

      - leaders of sections
      - depth or breadth of content covered
      - evaluation expectations (eg. Tests from one section are marked more ‘easily’)
      - support for students (some sections have more reviews, or extra handouts).

    • Increased sense of panic, especially at evaluations.
    • Inability to demonstrate various skills. For example, some students can't showcase their best work if only multiple-choice exams are used.
    • Less flexibility in course structure. With increased numbers, there is increased rigidity in structure of course, e.g. changes in exam times become impossible.
    • There is a risk that students will develop a negative attitude as a result of their frustration with the problems listed above.

From a TA's Viewpoint

  • Restriction on time per student; too many students per TA.
  • Too much time required for grading; can’t do best job.
  • Sense of being anonymous.

Part 2: Solutions

Before You Start

  1. Think Carefully.
    • Think about the purpose of what we are doing in class, i.e. is it to present information, excite and motivate students; cover concepts?
    • Is the lecture the best way to do this?
    • What about having my notes printed? Presented on the web?
  2. Check out the room. What are the physical constraints?
    • What are the alternatives available to overcome limitations?
    • Is the technology available (i.e. PowerPoint)? Do you need Internet access?
    • Is there an overhead projector?
    • Can you see the screen or blackboard from the back row?
    • Is there a microphone? Do you need one?
  3. Check out exam writing and due date regulations.
    • Can you coordinate your assignments and tests with other large classes that your students are likely to be taking?
  4. Find out what requirements exist for course outlines.
  5. Find out who are the people that have experience and interest in teaching. They are a resource for information and a support.

Creating the Lecture/Presentation for Large Classes

  1. Be organized.
    • Know what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it.
    • Know how long your material will take - pick a place to stop before you start.
    • Leave time for questions/discussion - as much as possible.
    • Be especially clear (to reduce the number of questions).
    • Run through the class presentation before you do it (i.e. Izzy Gormezano’s mirror rehearsals). Don’t "wing it" unless you’re really good at making that work.
    • Arrive early to set up. Minimize paper shuffling and unnecessary pauses as you arrange materials.
    • Make sure that the overhead or projectors work and are focused.
  2. Style changes.
    • Larger gestures and more voice modulation for larger rooms - not unlike a stage presentation (actors exaggerate to seem normal; instructors should do the same).
    • Need more overt enthusiasm in a large room to get the same effect.
    • Move from the podium when possible, closer to the class (i.e. TSH-120).
    • Larger graphics on overheads/video projectors.
    • Include more personal information in presentations.
    • Try to talk as though having a conversation rather than giving a lecture.
    • Avoid using a microphone, or get a wireless mike so your movement is not impeded.

How can we increase a sense of contact? Dealing with Impersonality and Anonymity

  1. Atmosphere. Get students to know others in the class.
    • Introductions. On the first or second day of class, have an activity where you ask people to turn and introduce themselves to the people around. Students tend to sit in the same place each class, so they will meet the people they will be sitting with for most of the course. This decreases the sense of anonymity, the sense of being lost, and increases the chance that students will interact outside of class. Especially good for Level I courses, where students more dependent on social support.
    • Study Groups. Foster the development of study groups within the course, perhaps by posting sign-up sheets and agreeing to visit the groups once/twice per term.
    • Get to know the students yourself:
      • Read names through the roster so you have some idea of the names of students. Perhaps read the roster once or twice in the first week or two (if class size permits).
      • Nicknames. For smaller large classes, have students write first name and desired nickname on a 3x5 card, since Registrar’s roster not always accurate for a few weeks.
      • Name Cards. Give out name cards and ask students to bring them to class. Knowing students’ names increases responsibility.
      • Photos. Take digital photos of student by row, or tutorial. Record the student's name under their photo. It is possible to learn dozens of names this way in a few weeks. But be careful, some students do not like this option so ask first.
      • Get to class early and walk up and down the aisles to meet students and get to know them by name. Many (most) will sit in the same places every class, and it will be possible to learn their names one by one.
      • Questions. Ask students to give their first names when asking questions.
      • Eye Contact. Look at individual students while talking.
      • Office Hours. Hold regular office hours and get the names of the students who come to your office hours.
      • Tests. If you hold in-class tests, walk around and read names from papers and try to associate them with faces.
      • Email. If possible, encourage students to use your e-mail address or set one up just for course queries (e.g.
      • Tutorials. Visit the tutorials, if there are any.
      • Brown bag lunch. Offer that you will be available during lunch time (e.g. 10 to 12) and that any student can show up and have an informal discussion over lunch.
    • Try to establish trust where students feel comfortable. For example, tell them you won’t ‘cold call.’ Give some personal information about yourself (within reason). For example, tell them you were shy as a student, and would have een embarrassed to ask a question.
    • Walk around. This means that you are close to the students. It helps to have a mobile, wireless microphone. If you are using PowerPoint, it helps to have a wireless mouse. If you restricted because of equipment, at least walk to different sides of the stage.
    • Make eye contact around the class (this is easier if you can move around). Do not stare above the heads to the back wall, instead try to look at faces.
    • Find a friendly face. If you are nervous, choose a person who looks supportive (who nods and smiles), and make eye contact more often with them.
    • Common Names. In a large class there are common names you can use, e.g. "Do you agree, John?"
    • Humour. If you are good at jokes you can use these or have a funny timer to call students back from discussion.
    • Informal manner, joke, humour - exaggerate everything slightly for a large class.
    • Put "it" on the table. Make the problems overt not covert so students know the problems with a large class and they can be a part of the solution.
    • Food. Occasionally, provide food to create a different atmosphere. For example, have popcorn for videos, or TimBits during a class discussion.
  2. Get Students Involved: Active Learning and Interaction

    Low Risk Interventions

    • Have some ‘ringers’ in the class. They will start by responding the way you would like, and act as a model for the other students, by the end everyone is involved.
    • Student Questions. Invite students to submit any question in writing or e-mail. During the next class (after 20-25 minutes when student attention decreases) read out one or two questions and try to answer them. Answer two follow-up questions from the students about that topic, then move on to the subject you are covering that class.
    • One-minute paper. On an overhead write a question. Here are some examples:

      "What do you still want to know?"
      "What was the muddiest point?"
      "What was the most important point in the lecture?"
      "What was most surprising in today’s lecture?"
      "What question still remains after the lecture?"
      "What did you feel you understood clearly?"

      Have students write for one minute on the question. The next day tell students a summary of some of the responses, or answer a two or three of their questions. Course Management Systems (different computer programs) can facilitate "one-minute paper."

    • Poll. Have students vote/poll on an issue, by raising their hands or handing in responses anonymously on a sheet of paper. Give the students the results so that they know what their peers think.

    • Vote on portions they want to explore as part of the course. Provide students with some control when you can, e.g. ask, "Shall we cover topic A next or B?"

    • Incentives. Give verbal reinforcement, or even candy or chocolate bar for students who ask a question. If done in a light manner, this can introduce a lot of humour. Be especially rewarding to those who do ask questions.

      Medium Risk Interventions

    • Break students into small groups to answer a question or solve a problem, or make up questions on the topic just covered. Students can form small groups of 2-4 relatively easily in a large auditorium by turning to their neighbours. Then walk around and talk. Students then have a chance to speak without doing so in front of large numbers. You can askone group per row (or several rows) to give their answers. This technique decreases the sense of anonymity, the sense of being lost, increases the contact students have with the professor and each other. It also increases the chance that students will interact outside of class.
    • Be "Oprah Winfrey. "Walk up the aisles and get students to talk into a portable microphone to answer questions. Usually, they laugh, are a little embarrassed, but have fun and all the students get to hear what they say.
    • Have students write their own exam question from what learned and hand it in. Explain what makes a good exam question. Indicate that some will actually be used on the exam. This helps them think carefully about the content, gives you feedback about what they understand, and gives them some sense of responsibility for the course.
    • Class demonstrations. Ask for volunteers to participate in demonstrations.
    • Ask them to help you even with simple tasks, such as changing the overheads if you are at the other end of the room. This gets them involved, and taking responsibility for even a small portion of the course.
    • Discussion. Set up a web-based discussion forum.
    • Debate. Organize a debate. For example, some students will be part of the "debate team" in front of the class, some will help with the debate research, the remainder will be the audience and write a clear summary following the debate.

      High Risk Interventions

    • Directed Questions. Ask questions that are directed to certain students. (Be careful with this, it alienates some students, a lot depends on how you do it).
    • Time. Somehow you need to make more time for students. Think about how you can cover all you need to cover. Decide what is really important for them to know, and focus on that. Do students have to hear it from you? Why not just give it to them in writing?
  3. Technology
    • Electronic Discussions. Use LearnLink or other software to have discussion outside of class-time. Collaborative discussion among students can be promoted. Students need to know that you will contribute to the conversation too.
    • EMail. Get and use student email addresses (can be downloaded from Oracle). Some mass mailing programs will allow you to personalize each email with student info even if sent as a bulk mailing. This gives the sense of personal contact. You can also send e-mail to exceptional students, and to those needing help.
    • Voluntary Directory. Collect students’ contact information, only if want to be part of the directory! You could pass around a piece of paper, pass 3 x 5 cards in class, or through e-mail give people the option to include their information. Ask students for their first name or the name they want to be called (could be something funny), as well as their e-mail address. Use these to establish a class list. This list will then be made available to the rest of the class to facilitate contact outside of class.
    • E-mail to set up appointments with different groups of students.
    • Course management systems - such as WebCT can help with some class interactions.

What do you do if you loose their attention?

Issues of Order and Attention


  • Physical distance. The closer you are, the less they feel anonymous. Decrease the distance, both psychological and physical.
  • Set the tone early. Better and easier to go from hard-nosed to easy-going than vice versa.
  • Talking or other disruptions in class:
    • Walk towards them, stand nearby for a 1-2 mins, looking at them.
    • Ask if they have questions.
    • Check with them after class and ask if there was anything especially unclear, in case that was the cause of their chatter.
    • Make sure that class material and activities don’t duplicate unnecessarily material they are getting elsewhere.
    • Increase opportunities for class involvement.
    • Try in some way to give students the sense that they are responsible for their behaviour in class, and need to show respect for other students’ chance to learn.
  • Shuffling at the end of class; early leaving:
    • Set time expectations in early classes.
    • Don’t let them go early (at least for the first few classes). Make sure early classes take the full period, with no exceptions. Exceptions breed expectations. Noise levels will start to increase just before the students expect to leave.
    • Pattern Expectations for Ending. Always do the same thing at or just before the end of the class - present question relevant to next class; suggest question or two on class material that might appear on next test, summarize, etc. Establish a pattern, so that students know you will give important information at the end. For example, "At the end of the class, I’ll go over the assignment requirements."
    • Don’t run overtime, because students have other classes to go to. Also, another class needs your space, and the chaos will be greater if two large classes are trying to enter and exit at the same time. If you have trouble keeping track of time, ask your class to give you a five-minute warning.


  • Think about lecture pacing and mix of content:
    • introduce humor at appropriate places
    • balance the concrete with the abstract; applied with theoretical
    • provide time for reflection after challenging material.
  • Remember the general rule - change every 15-20 minutes. Student attention to the class, and retention of the material drops dramatically in 20 minutes, but increases with a change in lecture style, such as a break, a question, a demonstration.
  • Breaks. Take a break.
    • Coffee. In a long class you can take a coffee break.
    • Notes. Tell students to take two minutes to look over and consolidate their notes. Or turn to their neighbours and compare notes for a more complicated topic.
  • Be Enthusiastic. Part of getting students excited is for you to be excited. Don’t say, "This is really boring."
  • Connections and Links. Give an example of how the content might apply to them, or that is from a recent event. Show the connection between the concrete and the abstract (even though it may be obvious to you, it is not always clear to the students).
  • Divide students into tutorials based on level (introductory, advanced) or interests.
  • Pose a problem. Have students work in small groups. (Takes about 10 minutes.) They help each other.
  • Give a pre-test then account for the different backgrounds of the students - you may have lost their attention because they are lost.
  • Ask students. For example you could ask "How many of you understand what I have been describing? How many of you would like me to rephrase it?" Look for head nodding, and body movement to give you clue.

How can you address the reduced flexibility in evaluations?

  • Purpose. Pay attention to what you evaluate and why. Go back to the objectives of the course. What is the best way to determine if students are meeting the course objectives? Does it have to be a standard essay or exam? Be creative.
  • Clarity. State very clearly what the purpose for the assessment is. Be very clear to both TA’s and students what will be assessed, what the expectations are. Students shouldn’t be guessing what the instructor wants. (eg. You are responsible for these 300 terms, or, you will need to be able to use this model to explain new data I will give you on the test.)
  • Variety. Try to have variety in your evaluation methods to assess different skills.
  • Repetition. If possible give students more than one opportunity to be assessed using one style of assessment (eg. Students can practice writing your style of multiple choice). Increase the value of the second time. You can use peer marking to provide a chance for practice without increasing workload.
  • Multiple Choice. Work hard on multiple-choice questions so that they are well written, and evaluate different levels of thinking.
  • Tutorials. Different evaluations may take place in tutorials such as group projects, group assignments, portfolios of sample work.
  • Tutorial Leaders. Have enough tutorial leaders to mark and provide feedback on assessments (although sometimes professors do not have any control over this).
  • Make use of undergraduates TAs. They learn a lot, gain experience, and there are large numbers of undergraduates available. They have also survived it recently, and so can give some good advice to the new students.
  • Technology. Some assignments can be done on-line. For example: a system in Physics called CAPA. The system randomly assigns questions, so that every student receives a different set of questions. Students are given five chances to get the right answer. The assignment is marked on-line. This means that students get immediate feedback, and the marking load for instructors is decreased.
  • Consider not marking. Have some unmarked assignments. There are issues of time competition - many students have so much to do, that they can only focus on the things that are worth marks so you may need to address this.
    • Assign work that won’t be marked, but indicate that at least some of the questions will be on the exam.
    • Assign work, then tell students you will mark part of the work, not all of it.
    • Have the mark for an assignment be ‘Pass/Fail’ based on whether the students complete the assignment.
  • Peer evaluation/self-evaluation. This can provide students with feedback, without causing an unreasonable marking load. Knowing that their peers will read their work may encourage some to focus more. You can give students a mock mid-term, where students exchange papers and mark. In addition to giving students practice with an assessment method, it also gives students insight into marking, and also fast feedback.
  • Groups. Have students work in groups and submit a group paper.
  • Link Assessments. Link to real world and job skills so that students have a motivation other than marks.
  • Length. Restructure assignments so students are required to be concise. Have strong length restraints, particularly on written essays or labs. This will help decrease the marking burden, and may make it possible to mark more short assignments.