Making 300 Feel Like 30: How to Teach Large Sections

May 30, 2019 Ric Sweeney

Imagine, if you will, the perfect classroom scenario: a professor stands among their students, discussing a variety of topics, and students raise their hands, engage in the group discussion, and apply what they’ve read to relevant, real-world topics.  It’s a rewarding experience for all.  In your mind, and be honest, what type of classroom do you see? It’s a small, 30 or so students in a room where everyone knows each other’s name, isn’t it?

While the movie setup of a college classroom is nice (and in some cases true!) the frequent reality is this: with so many students needing to complete so many courses in just a few short years, and with the pressures colleges and universities face to increase enrollments and revenues many class sizes are significantly larger. 300 – 500 students in a lecture hall larger.

This changes the teaching atmosphere in many fundamental ways:

  • Names: In such a large class, a professor simply cannot remember the names of all 300 students.
  • More Lecturing: Large sections of courses often require more lecturing and less activity-based engagement. There’s a wide range in students’ knowledge and ability and with 300+ of them, lecture-based instruction is often the most practical.
  • Less Engagement: Students can hide or get lost in a big auditorium. Engagement is often difficult to implement for everyone.

While these fundamental changes and challenges that come with a large, lecture classroom can be difficult to manage, they also provide an opportunity for an instructor to think and teach differently.  There are several approaches that instructors can take to make 300 students feel like 30; all while improving student engagement and learning at the same time:

  1. Form Groups

Breaking up a large classroom into smaller groups can help make things feel smaller and more personalized. Small groups, even within the confines of a larger lecture, can offer additional support, engagement opportunities, and 1:1 time (even if it’s with peers) to all students. So how can instructors establish these smaller groups without creating anarchy in a lecture hall?

  • If you have 300 students, put them into 60 groups of five students.  For smaller or larger classes plan accordingly but make sure to keep the groups small enough that they can work effectively.
  • The students can form their own groups, or they can be randomly assigned, depending on what works best in your particular course.
  • Tell students ahead of time, so they can be prepared to be in a group.
  • Have a seating chart that provides a location for each group and use this chart to assign seating for the semester. 
  • Each group gets a number, and they hold the responsibility to bring their group number to class so they can be identified easily.
  1. Use Active Learning

One of the most difficult parts of a larger classroom is figuring out ways to break-up the lecture format. You need to, of course, get the material across to your students in a time efficient manner but the instructor only talking model can often lead to decreased student engagement. To break up your lectures, try utilizing the smaller group set up to institute active learning strategies:

  • During each class, take opportunities to give the student groups a topic of discussion.
  • Once they’ve taken five or ten minutes to discuss a topic relevant to the learning objectives for that day, bring the class back together and have the groups share their thoughts, insights, and opinions. 
  • Naturally, some groups will participate more than others, so here’s a simple solution: Whenever a group raises their hand and shares a thought, write down their group number and keep a running tally of which groups participate.  Post a Leaderboard that is updated regularly! You’ll find that groups will begin competing for attention, especially if there are any group participation points involved!
  1. Utilize Technology

Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are an integral and important part of students’ lives. However, they can be distracting in a classroom – particularly when that classroom is large enough to make students feel that they’re “invisible” to the instructor. Many instructors ask students to avoid using their phones and laptops altogether, but this can be difficult to impossible to enforce. So instead try embracing technology in a manner that benefits you and your classroom:

  • If there’s a topic of discussion, have students use their laptops to research the topic. By giving them permission to use their laptops or smartphones to find answers related to topics of discussion, they will start to develop healthy technology habits.
  • You can also incorporate a technology-based response system (like Poll Everywhere) using smartphones, tablets, or laptops into the classroom. This can be used at the beginning of class as a way of reviewing previous topics of discussion, at the end of the class as a quiz, or throughout the class as a measure of how students are capturing the knowledge being shared during the session.

Large classes can be a challenge, for both the Professor and the student. By taking a few simple and easy-to-administer approaches, a class of 300 can suddenly become more intimate, engaging, and fun.

About the Author

Ric Sweeney

Ric Sweeney is an Associate Professor in the Marketing Department at the University of Cincinnati's Carl H. Lindner College of Business, specializing in Principles of Marketing, Advertising, Services Marketing, Branding, and Promotions. A passionate educator, Ric serves as faculty advisor for the UC AMA, CATALYST Marketing, and Project Heal, and is a faculty fellow for the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. He has also been a recipient of numerous awards for inspiring the next generation of great marketers, including the Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Barbour Award for Faculty/Student Relations, two of the University’s top awards for excellence. Ric has been a devoted volunteer for the American Marketing Association since 1996, serving locally as a Cincinnati Chapter Board Member and President. From there, he took his AMA volunteering to the national organization. Ric elevated his volunteering for the AMA to its highest level, serving as a Member of the Board of Directors and as the Chairman of the Board. Ric's impact on marketing, just within his AMA volunteering alone, is reflected in the fact that the AMA's annual national Volunteer of the Year award has his name attached to the honor. In 2018, Ric was named a “Cincinnati Marketing Legend” by the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

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