Strategies for Teaching Large Classes

November 06, 2018

Large classes typically consist of 50 or more students in a class. Other educators define large classes based on factors that include content, room size, and cultural perception (Bain, 2004). Teaching large classes creates some challenges for educators such as how to address, navigate, and tackle the following effectively:

  • classroom management
  • student engagement
  • knowledge comprehension
  • teaching approaches
  • assessment and grading strategies
  • students’ feelings of isolation

Moreover, the physical layout of large classrooms is often not conducive to managing and teaching large classes efficiently (Bain, 2004).

Theoretical Approaches and Strategies

A review of literature on this topic showed that incorporating active collaborative learning strategies can help to mitigate the challenges associated with teaching large classes. Fink (2003) recommended that educators integrate active learning in their course design by engaging students in “doing” and “observing” experiences. “Doing” and “observing” experiences provide opportunities for students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge. Both types of experiences should include exposure to the practical application of pedagogical content in a real world context. A critical aspect of Fink’s model is self and peer reflection to help students to digest and process course content. Review this article to learn more.


Doing and Observing ExperiencesNEW.png

Similarly, Smith (2000) proposed the bookends approach to support active and collaborative learning. This approach is illustrated in the graphic below and starts with a low-stakes engagement activity (E.g., Describe three takeaways from the assigned chapter readings?) to stimulate student interest. Subsequent steps consist of the interweaving lecture and “turn to your neighbor” activities or discussions. The final part of the model allows students to process and reflect on the instructional content and outcomes from the student discussions. Instructors can incorporate this approach to small and large classes. Learn more about the bookend approach.

Bookends Approach.png


Strategies for teaching large classes

The strategies provided below are based on a review of the literature on large classes and also recommendations provided from a variety of centers for excellence in teaching and learning. Strategies for increasing student engage, promoting active learning, supporting teaching and learning, and assessing students in large classes are described briefly below:

  • Audience response systems: An easy way to engage students is to use an audience response system, colloquially referred to as “clickers.” Clickers are devices that enable the instructor to monitor and check students’ understanding quickly and easily. It also allows students to respond to course-related questions anonymously. You can incorporate comprehension questions in your lecture to enable students to consider and process course content. Integrating clickers allows students to participate in your course actively.  Students can work in small groups to answer “clicker” questions. By working in small groups, students have time to consider and discuss possible answer choices before responding to your questions. Penn State supports the use of iClickers.
  • Team-based learning (TBL): TBL is an instructional strategy that requires students’ to apply their knowledge of concepts acquired from lectures and assigned readings to solve a problem or accomplish a task. This strategy also requires students working collaboratively on assigned problems or tasks. Download this handout to learn more about team-based learning model.
  • Two-stage exams: The two-stage exam is part of the team-based learning strategy described above. Essentially, students complete and submit the exam individually and then complete the exams in small teams. The instructor can use "what-if" or "one best answer" questions to facilitate cognitive engagement in class because these types of questions help expand student ability to think. The instructor can ask these questions with or without introducing clickers, and with or without grading. Download this handout to learn more about two-stage exams.
  • Quick Assessments: The instructor can use IF-AT scratch cards for individual and team quizzes. Students like the cards because they can receive immediate feedback and further elaboration about incorrect answers.  Information and prices about the cards can be found here:
  • Instructional Technologies: Consider using technology to facilitate instruction. For example, use canvas to manage course content, learning activities, assessments, and grading. Canvas has specific features that can help to facilitate teaching and grading which include groups, rubrics, discussion forums, and quizzes to list a few. IT Learning and Development have a module on how to use canvas quizzes and grades to manage large enrollments. Click on this ITLD canvas module link to learn more. Conversely, instructors do not have to use complex instructional technologies. For example, some instructors use paper slips to increase student participation. An instructor asks students questions in class, an individual student or student group answers the questions, the instructor gives the student(s) a small colored piece of paper. The student writes their name and date on the paper. The instructor collects all the pieces of papers and tallies the participation points.

Additional Resources

Please review the resources below on how to manage, teach, assess and grade large classes. You may find them helpful:


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Center for Instructional Support.  (2010, October, 26). Team-based learning. Retrieved from

Fink, D. L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Fink, D.L. (2010). Active Learning. University Oklahoma Instructional Development Program, University of Oklahoma reprinted with permission by the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. Retrieved June 22, 2010 from

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L.D. (2002). Team-based learning. In Team-based learining: A transformative use of small groups. Praeger publishers: Westport, CT.

Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., Kalman, H. K., & Kemp, J. E. (2011). Designing effective instruction. (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Ormrod, J.E. (2014). Educational psychology: developing learners (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.