Skip to main content

Best Practices for Engaging Students in Large Lecture Courses

Most instructors would likely agree that the ideal college course setup involves an intimate room setting that promotes insightful discussions and thoughtful questions among a small group of students. The reality, particularly at larger colleges and universities, however, tends to involve larger lecture hall and auditorium classes for many Gen Ed and introductory courses. Instructors tasked with teaching in large sections may tend to rely on one-sided lecturing and PowerPoint slides to deliver content. And to add to the challenge of it all, many students feel intimidated to ask questions or speak up during discussions, and some may even choose not to attend regularly.  With all the challenges presented to instructors in large lecture classes how can they best interact with students and foster an environment that prioritizes discussion and participation?

Here are five tips for keeping students engaged in large lecture courses:

  1. Daily Goals

Begin with an overview or preview of what the goal is for the day. 

  • What are the learning objectives? 
  • What topics will be covered? 
  • How do these topics fit into the larger picture of the class? 

Giving students a general idea of what the day holds can help them stay on point with their note-taking and identify the important concepts. 

  1. Dry-Erase Boards or Notebook Paper

Once students know what to expect for the day, passing out a small dry erase board to each student can provide an inexpensive, low-tech means for active participation in class. If the class is too large to effectively use dry-erase boards, try having the students use notebook paper and sharpies.

Ask the students a question and have them write down the answer on their board or notebook paper. When prompted, students can raise their boards/paper into the air, revealing their answers to the instructor.  The students are challenged to thoughtfully consider the material and provide an answer, and the instructor is able to quickly scan the room for a rough assessment of the level of comprehension.  The flow of the lecture can be adjusted, accordingly.

  1. Notecards

Similarly, students can write down answers to instructor-posed questions on note cards, which could be turned in and used as a means of counting attendance, as well as assessing content comprehension.  Because many students are hesitant to ask questions in large auditorium settings, the instructor can also give students the opportunity to submit their questions over course material on the note cards following each lecture.  These questions can be reviewed and addressed by the instructor during a subsequent class meeting.  This is also a great way to put together an exam review session, since the instructor is able to tailor the review material for that specific group of students.

  1. Partner or Group Work

Dividing students into partners or small groups can also be a successful way to keep everyone engaged.  Partners can briefly discuss posed content questions and develop a response as a team.  The responses can be written on small dry erase boards or notebook paper, so the instructor can assess the level of understanding in each group or pair.  This strategy also promotes a sense of community within a large classroom.  Students are able make a connection with the person sitting next to them or within their small group/team, hopefully providing some level of mutual support during the semester. 

  1. Response Clickers and Mobile Apps

For a technology-based approach, response clickers or mobile apps like Polleverywhere, Top Hat, and iClicker can be incorporated into lectures.  These products allow the instructor to collect student response data in real-time and in a variety of formats (polls, heat maps, word clouds, etc.) Students actively participate in the lecture, and instructors are provided with immediate feedback on the level of content comprehension.  Instructors are then able to adjust the speed of the lecture in order to address any areas of weakness or confusion.  In addition, attendance and class participation can be recorded, offering an extra layer of valuable accountability to students. 

About the Author

Dr. Whitney Breslin is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Health and Human Performance Department at the University of Houston, where she teaches courses in health, functional anatomy, exercise physiology, and exercise testing and prescription. Dr. Breslin completed her PhD in Kinesiology at the University of Houston in 2012. Since then, she has taught a wide-range of course formats and enrollment sizes, ranging from face-to-face sections of 20 students to online sections of 2,000 students. She is passionate about teaching and loves the challenge of finding new ways to engage students and promote learning in a variety of course formats. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and two daughters. In their free time, they enjoy running, cooking, traveling, and exploring as many parks and playgrounds as possible.

Profile Photo of Whitney Breslin