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Cornell University

Teaching and Learning in Large Lectures

  1. How can you reduce anonymity and build community?
  2. How can you effectively manage students?
  3. How can you keep students engaged?
  4. What is active learning and how can you use it?
  5. How can you know if students are learning?
  6. How can you respond to individual needs?
  7. How can you incorporate writing and provide effective feedback?
  8. How can you include group work in your large lecture course?

1) How can you reduce anonymity and build community?

Building community in large lecture classes is not only possible, but may lead to benefits such as a reduction of anonymity and an increase in student accountability. Here are a few strategies:

Get to know students

For larger classes, these ideas may be useful:

  • Download a class list with pictures from the Brio Hyperion faculty website. Alternatively, you can compile a photo roster yourself. You can obtain photos by having TAs take pictures in class or take one group photo and have students identify their faces.
  • When speaking with students, ask for their name and then use their name in that interaction.
  • Use a class list to randomly call on names when you ask questions. Tell students on day one you will be doing this so they will expect it.
  • Memorize a few students' names each class and call on them in that class.
  • On the first day of class, ask students to write the following information on index cards: their names, their reasons for taking the course, and their expectations of it. Collect and review them. Keep these on file and refer to them whenever you have a meeting or interaction with a student. This can also be done online through a pre-course Qualtrics survey.

Provide opportunities for students to get to know each other

  • On the first day of class, have students turn to their neighbor and ask about their major, their year, and why they are taking the course.
  • If assigning group projects, provide class time for group work activities.
  • Ask students to work on tasks in pairs or small groups throughout your lectures.

Build an inclusive learning community

  • Think about how you can create a learning atmosphere that is respectful of all students, and is one in which students feel comfortable speaking and participating.
  • Include diversity and disability statements in your syllabus and draw attention to them.
  • Communicate your dedication to respectful communication by establishing classroom ground rules.
  • Set aside a few minutes at the beginning of class for student announcements.
  • See our section on building an inclusive learning community for more tips.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

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CTI Icebreakers pdf
CTI Establishing Ground Rules pdf

2) How can you effectively manage students?

Having more students increases the likelihood of having to deal with student disruptions. Unfortunately, it may not always be possible to completely avoid classroom incivility or other interruptions, but being prepared and planning possible responses beforehand will help.

Some strategies:

  • Address incivility right away.
  • Remain calm and criticize the behavior, not the individual.
  • Refer to established classroom norms that you may have included in your syllabus.
  • Ask to speak to disruptive students after class.

A few strategies can decrease the likelihood of student misconduct, such as maintaining a positive, inclusive learning environment and keeping students engaged. Visit our pages on building inclusive environments for strategies.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Managing Classroom Conflict pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

3) How can you keep students engaged?

Convey information effectively

  • Speak slowly.
  • Start with a hook.
  • Provide a visual agenda of your lecture and use transition slides.
  • Organize your lecture into meaningful sections.
  • Integrate mini-summaries throughout.
  • Pause throughout your lecture to pose questions or ask students to formulate questions to ask you or a partner sitting next to them.
  • Present information both visually and orally; consider using PowerPoint.
  • Repeat main points periodically.
  • Use various methods to convey ideas and concepts such through demonstrations, multimedia, and guest speakers.
  • Explain relevance of content to students’ lives.
  • End with a summary. You can visually display one, or try an active learning technique such as the following:
  • Ask students to reflect on the session and summarize the most important points of the lecture. (You can collect these summaries for your review.)
  • Once students are finished, display or create your own summary on the spot for students to compare with their own summary.

Know that you have options beyond lecturing. There are many engaging learning activities that can easily be implemented in any class regardless of size.

Group work or collaborative learning

Group work allows students to learn from each other if implemented effectively. Activities can be paired or small group in-class activities, or they can be more involved and continue throughout the semester.

One group activity you can easily use in a large lecture is the "snowball":

  • First, ask students break into pairs to complete a task such as brainstorming on a topic.
  • Next, ask each pair match up with another pair, forming a group of four. They can share their answers and complete another task such as ordering their lists into categories.
  • Finally, have the groups of four match up with another group of four and complete another task.

Integrate active learning techniques

Research suggests that 15-20 minutes is the amount of time it takes for student interest to wane. Within a 50-minute lecture you can conduct two to three active learning activities. These can be short exercises such as:

  • Asking students to turn to a neighbor to share notes and ask clarifying questions.
  • Asking students to write down one or two possible exam questions based on the lecture content just covered (collect these questions and consider using them for a test or exam).

Check student progress to assess student learning regularly

Not only does regular assessment of student learning allow you to gauge the effectiveness of your methods, it also engages students and helps them take control of their own learning. Regular assessment of student learning will help you determine whether you should adjust the pace of the course, or present material in different ways.

CTI Related Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Engagement Increasing Class Sizes pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

4) What is active learning and how can you use it?

Active learning is a learning activity in which students engage with course content in a meaningful way.

Here are some examples of active learning techniques that are useful for large lectures:

  • Use classroom polls to ask questions that review the lecture’s main ideas. Classroom response technologies such as i>clickers facilitate the collection of student answers electronically allowing for immediate feedback.
  • Poll students' prior knowledge by using a one-minute paper at the beginning of class to assess their existing knowledge on the topic (e.g., "Today we're discussing photosynthesis. Write down anything that comes to mind when you think of photosynthesis").
  • Check for comprehension by using a Think-Pair-Share exercise: prepare a comprehension question ahead of time, ask students to discuss the answer with a partner, and sample the class for responses (e.g., "Do you think photosynthesis stops when the sun goes down? Why or why not?").
  • Incorporate a video clip into the lecture that illustrates a main concept. Ask students to predict what will happen before watching; and have them respond to a question with a partner after viewing the video.

Even though there are significantly more students to manage in large lecture courses, it is still possible to complete short activities that provide opportunities for students to engage with the material in meaningful ways.

How to manage active learning in large classes:

  • Display learning activity directions on a presentation slide.
  • While students engage in the task, both you and your TAs can circulate and answer any questions.
  • Signal the end of the activity by turning the lights off and on, or by making a sound (e.g. clapping, ringing a bell) to redirect students' attention to you.
  • Take a moment to debrief by asking a few students to share their thoughts.
  • Move on to the next part of your lecture.

Incorporating active learning strategies in large lecture classes will take more time than delivering content through lecture alone, but utilizing these strategies will help you to achieve your class learning outcomes. Allow student learning to guide your decisions about the amount of course content to cover.

However, if covering a large amount of content is a concern, consider providing content to students outside of class in order to reserve some class time for active learning activities. You might:

  • Assign a video to watch.
  • Require reading beforehand (Crouch & Mazur, 2001).
  • Create a pre-class reading quiz that must be completed before attending the lecture (this can be done on Blackboard).

See more about these active learning strategies on our related web pages: active learning, classroom response technologies and using video.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Active Learning Techniques pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

5) How can I know if students are learning?

Formally, student learning is measured through assessments such as exams, midterms, quizzes, and term papers. This section refers mainly to assessing student learning in an informal manner on an ongoing basis for the purpose of informing your teaching practice.

In smaller classes, it may be easier to gauge student understanding. It is easier to read students’ faces and ask them questions directly and students may feel more comfortable asking questions as you go along. It is also possible to check student learning fairly quickly in larger classes. Here are some strategies:

There are a number of quick and easy Classroom Assessment Techniques or “CATs” (Angelo & Cross, 1993) designed for multiple purposes. Probing for background knowledge on a subject or measuring student learning of course material covered are among them.

An example of a quick and easy CAT is giving students three minutes at the end of a class to write the most important point(s) of the lecture on index cards in order to gauge comprehension.

  • Even with 100 or more students, you can quickly skim through the responses to get an idea of what students have taken away from that lecture.
  • With significantly more than 100 students, pick a random sampling of returned index cards to get an idea.
  • Once you collect and review this data, you have the opportunity to address any misconceptions and/or give feedback on student learning in the beginning of the next lecture.

Another possibility is to incorporate classroom response technologies (or i>clickers). With this technology:

  • Students can respond to any number of questions you pose.
  • Responses are tallied for instant results.
  • You are able to collect and provide instant feedback on student learning.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

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CTI CATs Measuring Student Learning pdf
CTI CATs Summary of Selected Quick and Easy CATs pdf

6) How can you respond to individual student needs?

Becoming aware of individual student needs

The most obvious way to keep track of individual student progress is through mid-term tests and other graded assignments. Blackboard’s Gradebook tool enables you to highlight students whose grades are above or below a certain point, allowing you to scan student progress quickly. Having this information is beneficial at mid-semester so you can take action and contact students or help plan informal study groups.

Including a statement describing your policy on accommodating students with disabilities in your syllabus communicates an openness to individual needs and may encourage those who are eligible for accommodations to come forward early in the semester. For students who request accommodations but do not have documentation, direct them to Student Disability Services on campus to arrange for testing.

Attending to individual student needs

  • Inform students about student services at Cornell such as the Learning Strategies Center where students have access to tutoring and study skills counseling.
  • For a group of students who are struggling with course content, offer additional tutoring sessions. You, your TAs, or volunteer students who have already taken the course and have done very well can deliver these.
  • Include an online discussion board so students can post questions about course content. Other students and TAs can help in addressing these questions.

Again, large enrollment classes are often composed of students with a range of learning styles and preferences, motivations, abilities, and experiences with learning. Design and deliver your class to reach out to as many students as possible by incorporating principles of universal design for learning (UDL). See our resource on UDL below.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

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CTI Learning Styles Sheet pdf
CTI Universal Design pdf

7) How can you incorporate writing assignments and provide effective feedback?

Writing is an effective way for students to explore and develop ideas and allows you to assess students’ higher order thinking of course material.

Understandably, however, it is difficult for you and your TAs to grade students’ writing and be able to give effective feedback for many writing assignments each semester in a large enrollment course. Here are some sustainable techniques to provide opportunities for students to develop their writing and to get some useful feedback.

Small writing assignments

During class, set aside time for students to respond to short writing prompts.

  • Ask students to apply a theory, make connections between concepts, or describe a process in writing.
  • Give students enough time to do so (2-10 minutes or longer depending on the prompt).
  • These can also be brief homework assignments such as responding to a reading or keeping a journal, all of which can be posted online in a class management system such as Blackboard.

To provide feedback:

  1. Collect all responses and let students know that you will review every 4th (5th, 6th, or 7th…) one closely.
  2. Compile a list of common themes or issues you have noticed in their responses.
  3. Choose one good example.
  4. In the next class, provide a general overview of the common themes and issues.
  5. Display an exemplary instance and give students 2 minutes to discuss with a partner what characteristics make it a ‘good’ written response. Review these characteristics.
  6. Regarding individualized feedback on these small writing tasks, you can 
  • Make the assignment anonymous and not give individual feedback to anyone.
  • Have students write their names on the writing assignment and return a small sample each time you do this activity throughout the semester—keep track until you eventually give feedback to all students.

Another useful strategy is to distribute a grading rubric or guiding questions and have students self-assess and/or provide peer evaluations in pairs or within small groups.

Hear Edward McLaughlin (Robert G. Tobin Professor of Marketing and Director Undergraduate Program Charles H Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management) share a low-stakes writing activity he does in large lectures called “Viewpoints”.

For tests and exams (essay questions)

Essay questions on tests and exams do not need to be scrapped for larger lecture classes. Here are a couple of strategies to keep things reasonable:

Heppner (2007) offers essay writing as an option for tests and assignments to students in his large lecture classes. He announces that assessments will be made up of multiple choice or fill-in-the blank type questions, but if students feel that they can demonstrate their comprehension of course material better in essay format, they are invited to request this. A small percentage of students do request this format, but there is no burden of correcting hundreds of student essays.

Another strategy described by Svinicki & McKeachie (2011) is to include an essay on a final exam, but to explain at the onset that the essay question will only be graded if it will have an effect on the student’s final grade. This provides sufficient motivation for students to make a decent attempt on the essay and is sustainable for grading, as only a portion of students will fall into this category.

Larger writing assignments such as term papers

For larger writing assignments:

  • Break them up into smaller pieces throughout the semester. For example, start with an annotated bibliography, then a paper outline, first draft, second draft, etc.
  • Coordinate peer-assessment or self-assessment sessions in class for each stage. For example, at the beginning, students can comment on idea formation and organization and near the end, students can provide specific feedback on grammar and style. This will both allow students to receive some support and feedback throughout the process, develop their assessment and revision skills, and will hopefully result in better quality final drafts for you and your TAs to grade.
  • Provide a clear rubric for students to use as a guide and for graders to use to be consistent. If using rubrics for grading or peer /self-assessment, be prepared to take some class time to introduce the rubric so that students know how to use it effectively.

Collaborative writing for large assignments is also an option. This provides students the opportunity to develop teamwork skills as well as writing skills. It also means that there will be fewer final papers to correct. If using this strategy:

  • Students will need to be supported in their group work, and given time in class to work on team building and the assigned task.
  • Collaborative technologies can be used to facilitate this process such as GoogleDocs or Wikis.
  • To ensure that all students contribute to the assignment, assign roles to group members and reassign roles throughout the semester for different group tasks. See this page with more ideas on collaborative learning.

Academic Integrity

As with any assignment, there is the possibility of academic integrity code violations and with larger groups this may be more challenging to manage.

For large classes, Heppner (2007) suggests incorporating mini paper defense sessions.

  • Have students make a short 2-3 minute meeting with TAs to defend their paper.
  • TAs ask questions about some terms or concepts presented in the paper.
  • If the group is too large, tell students that they will be chosen randomly to defend their papers.

There are other common strategies to promote academic integrity and deter instances of violations.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

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CTI Enhancing Analytic Writing pdf
CTI Academic Integrity pdf
CTI Designing and Evaluating Research Assignments pdf

8) How can you include group work in a large lecture course?

Group work and collaborative learning can be incorporated into large lecture classes both as brief active learning activities during class as well as more in-depth learning assignments.

  • Require students to read articles or other material before they arrive in order to ensure that there is time in class to do group work activities..
  • Consider having TAs attend class to assist you in facilitating activities.
  • Arrange for students to refrain from sitting in certain rows, so you and your TA(s) can move around the room to ensure that students are on track.

In-class collaborative active learning activities

At a point during your lecture when you want to give students a chance to engage with the content, try any one of the following techniques:

  • Use a visual aid such as a PowerPoint slide to provide directions with more complicated tasks.
  • Clearly indicate the time-on-task.
  • When an activity is over, turn off the lights to signal that students should stop and redirect their attention back to you.

All in-class collaborative activities are generally a 3-step process:

    1. Introduce the task. Consider assigning small group roles. (For example, direct students to work in groups of 3. The middle person takes notes and the people on the right and left take different sides of an argument to defend. The middle person decides which argument is the strongest.)
    2. Give students time to engage in the task (you and your TAs can walk around to ensure students are on task and understand what they need to be doing).
    3. Debrief. Call on a few groups to share their ideas or results, and open the floor for questions.

More in-depth group work

Projects that are more involved and require more time can also be assigned as group work. When assigning group work in large classes:

  • Use a spreadsheet to randomly group students. Allowing students to form their own groups can be tricky and will likely result in unequal groups.
  • Post the groups online.
  • Use class time so students can complete group work.
  • In the beginning, have the groups do some team building exercises and establish roles and expectations.
  • Assign individual roles within groups and change the roles throughout the semester.
  • Have group members come up with their own processes and procedures for what to do if things go wrong. This may decrease the number of group issues.
  • Allocate a percentage of the assignment grade to peer evaluations of individual contributions to the group.

Some example collaborative assignments:

  • Collaborative writing assignments.
  • Group wiki or website.
  • Group presentations (have students create a video of their presentation so that final presentations do not require hours of class time. Choose the top three or four to present in class).

See our page on collaborative learning for more ideas on how to incorporate group learning in your class.


Angelo, T. & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching large college classes: A guidebook for instructors with multitudes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W.J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed). Wadsworth Publishing.
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