The Large Classes Newsletter

The following is a portion of one issue of a newsletter published by our colleagues at the University of Maryland to share ideas about the particular problems in teaching larger classes. If you would like to see more of their ideas and other resources, their web address is: <University of Maryland>

James Greenberg & Elisa Carbone
Published by the Center for Teaching Excellence
University of Maryland at College Park

Issue #5
May 1996 : This month's newsletter discusses ways to increase faculty/student contact in large classes.
Personalizing the Large Class
by Elisa Carbone

He's gone from sharing a bedroom with his kid brother to bunking with a stranger from New Jersey. She's gone from fighting over the shower with her two sisters to sharing a bathroom with the whole east wing of the girl's dorm. They used to be known by their first names, now they're identified by social security numbers. And after 12 years of classes with 30 or so students, they find themselves in a lecture hall with 300 other freshmen.

One of the biggest problems with large classes, students report, is that the impersonal atmosphere makes them feel anonymous, lost, and out of place, and that these feelings lead to decreased motivation. (Wulff, Nyquist ~ Abbott, 1987) Is there anything we can do to help students in large classes feel more welcome? Below you'll find suggestions from the literature and from the experiences of UMCP faculty.

♦ Treat the space as if it were small

Maryellen Gleason (1986) suggests that teachers of large classes engage in some of the same communication behaviors as teachers of small classes. In other words, come in early and chat informally with a few students. Move around the room as you lecture. When a student asks a question, move closer to that student as you answer the question. Join teaching assistants to distribute handouts. Stay after class to briefly discuss the lecture and answer questions for students who are interested. J. Richard Aronson (1987) says that remaining in the lecture hall for a few minutes after class can do a lot to show students you are interested in them and that you are accessible.

♦ Learn student names

Learn the names of hundreds of students? Robyn Muncy (History) has her students state their name each time they ask a question. This helps her remember at least some of their names, and lets all of her students know that she is trying to learn them. "The effort is more important than complete success," she says. If students see you making an effort to get to know them, they feel you care and that it's worth coming to see you during your office hours.

Mady Segal (Sociology) does strive for complete success in learning the names of all 140 of her students. On the first day of the semester, her TA's get busy lining students up in groups of three or four and snapping a Polaroid picture of them. Their names are written under their photos, stapled onto an index card. This is where Segal's work begins. During "down time," such as sitting at stop lights or walking from her car to her office, she studies the names and faces and memorizes them as one would memorize elements on the periodic table. Within a few weeks she knows all of her students by name. John Pease (Sociology) says that in order to continue to remember this many names it is important to use them constantly, every time you go to class, every time you see the students around campus.

What if a student drops the class? Simply put an X through the photo. Segal finds that often by the time a student drops, she has already committed the name to memory. Then, when she sees the student walking down Campus Drive she can stop him and ask, "So, Bill, why did you drop my class?"

Segal finds that learning their names greatly increases the rapport she has with her students. They really appreciate having an instructor who takes the time to learn who they are.

♦ Personalize feedback

"No aspect of the large class is as demanding of instructors' time or as likely to pressure them to adopt impersonal evaluation methods as are the challenges of grading and giving feedback." (Lowman, 1987, p. 78) What are some practical ways to personalize and increase faculty/student feedback in large classes? Gleason (1986) suggests choosing 20 papers each time an exam or assignment is given and adding a few personal comments. In this way, by the end of the semester you will probably have given feedback to a fairly large portion of the class. Or, have TA's select the highest scoring papers for you to write comments on. This "reward" can add to students' motivation.

Robyn Muncy finds the "One-Minute Paper" to be a very valuable tool in creating a kind of dialogue with her students. At the end of class she asks them to write down one main point from the lecture and one question they still have about the topic. She reads these and chooses several questions to answer during the next class session. This helps to let Muncy know if her lectures are getting through to students, and gives a chance for some interaction around students' individual questions.

♦ Be available

Students in large classes don't always feel comfortable coming to office hours. The distance that is created between the podium and the rows of seats makes them feel intimidated by the thought of meeting individually with the professor.

Penny Koines (Plant Biology) has found that scheduling an informal meeting time --a brown bag lunch in the conference room every Wednesday at noon -- has helped to increase her rapport with her students. Eight or nine students attend each Wednesday session to discuss questions they have about the class material or to talk about environmental issues from the current media A core of five or six students comes every week, along with a number of students who attend one or two meetings when they have specific questions. Koines has found that even though only a small percentage of the entire class of 250 attends these sessions, the fact that she is available to eat with students has made everyone in the class feel that she is more accessible and approachable. The informal lunch meeting, she says, has helped students feel more comfortable about attending her formal office hours.

Robyn Muncy periodically holds her office hours in the reference section of McKeldin Library. This way, she can personally show students where they can find the materials they need for research for her class. "Only ten students may show up for this," she says, "but that's ten students I wouldn't have reached otherwise."

In classes with large numbers of students, personal contact with each student may well be impossible. But with some effort and a few proven strategies, it is possible to help students feel less anonymous and more valued as individuals.


Aronson, Richard J. 1987. Six Keys to Effective Instruction in Large Classes: Advice from a Practitioner in Teaching Large Classes Well, edited by Maryellen Gleason Weimer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 32. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gleason, Maryellen 1986. Better Communication in Large Courses. College Teaching, 34(1): 20-24.

Lowman, Joseph 1987. Giving Students Feedback in Teaching Large Classes Well edited by Maryellen Gleason Weimer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 32. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wulff, Donald H., Nyquist, Jody D. and Abbott, Robert D. 1987. Students’ Perceptions of Large Classes in Teaching Large Classes Well edited by Maryellen Gleason Weimer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No.32.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.