The Large Lecture: Minor Adjustments, Major Impacts

Large lecture courses are hard, for both students and faculty alike, and while an exhaustive body of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) research boasts benefits of smaller classes (Cuseo, 2007), budgetary and a myriad of other restrictions leave many higher education institutions with few options for reducing class sizes.  Accordingly, many instructors are forced to figure out a way to best serve our students in this unideal setting.

Three years ago, in my first year as a full time faculty member, I found myself teaching one of these large lecture classes.  There were ~250 students, split across two sections, piled into an outdated auditorium.   The setting was intimidating for me, and if one thing was certain, it was that however intimidated I felt, my students felt it even harder (and as an aside, three years later, I still find myself, at times, intimidated by this space).  So, in a high-stakes, pre-requisite course like Anatomy & Physiology that is content-heavy and, by nature, inherently intense, what can be done in a large lecture hall to ease the tension and improve student learning?

When looking to the SOTL research for evidence-based recommendations on student engagement and active learning ideas in high-enrollment courses such as mine, I quickly became overwhelmed with possibilities (not unlike a kid in a candy store).  Before I knew it, finding meaningful ways to reshape my class in the best interest of the student became defeating – how was I supposed to overhaul my course to integrate best-practice pedagogy while still juggling the rest of my faculty responsibilities?

Thankfully, last year a colleague introduced me to a book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, by James Lang.  Admittedly – I still have not finished this book (rest assured – I am currently in a book club studying this book, so I WILL finish it!); that being said, Lang’s powerful message about the significance of small changes resonated with me pretty early on in the text.  Minor, thoughtful adjustments to the daily classroom routine are capable of eliciting substantial impacts on student learning.  In other words, I did not need to reinvent the wheel to better serve my students; instead, I set a goal for myself to try out one or two small, reasonable adjustments per semester.  While I am still navigating best-practice teaching and experience a healthy dose of trial-and-error, here is what I have found useful thus far:


1. Learning names. This is perhaps the most straightforward, obvious classroom goal, but when you have a large number of students, something as simple as learning student names can quickly slip through the cracks.  Now, I appreciate that implementing this goal takes considerable time and intention, and depending on the structure of your high-enrollment course, it may or may not be feasible.  In my course, for example, it is a two-part series, which means I have the same students for an entire academic year rather than one semester.  Moreover, in addition to lecture, I have all of my students in smaller lab sections.  Accordingly, I have plenty of opportunity to interact with students and pay attention to names.

From a purely anecdotal observation, if and when a student musters up the courage to ask a question in the large auditorium, addressing them by name appears to increase the likelihood of the student asking again.  Moreover, it seems to have an impact on other students in the classroom, too; anecdotally, I have noticed in lectures where I address student questions using student names, the number of different students asking questions appears to increase.  Overall, addressing students by name seems to communicate a message that students in our classrooms are not simply a body in a seat or a number in the system, but they are a member of a learning community.

2. Finding an inclusive platform for voicing questions. Despite reaching a point in the academic year where everyone knows each other by name, some students will never feel comfortable enough raising their hand to ask questions in the big lecture hall. Knowing this, along with the notion that student confusion rarely exist in isolation, this semester I made it a point to explore alternative platforms for asking questions during lecture.  Cue in the Google Doc: this handy, online word-processing tool gave me a platform for monitoring student questions in real time during lecture.  On the logistical end, it is worth noting that I have a TA monitoring our Google Doc during lecture, so that when a stream of questions comes through, common themes in questions are consolidated into one or two questions.  A few times during the lecture, I will check in with our TA and address questions.  It is also worth mentioning that the document has been set up such that student names are linked to their comments; this was implemented as a measure to keep comments appropriate and on track.  So far, this has turned out to be a great platform, not only for students asking lecture questions in real time, but also for facilitating some really great discussion amongst students.


3. Holding students accountable for in-class activities.  I quickly realized in my large lecture class that students were generally unmotivated to participate in any in-class activity unless I collected it and assigned points (which, by the way, can be a logistical nightmare with 250 students).  Yet, as I learned in Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (a previous book club endeavor of mine), engaging students in activities like 5 minute recall exercises is widely supported as an effective tool for long-term learning and retention.  So, I decided to piggy back off my previous idea of the Q&A Google Doc, and open up an entire classroom folder where, in addition to our Q&A doc, students had daily folders for submitting in-class activities (again, in real time).  As of now, the way that it works is as follows: upon completing the short recall exercise, or other in-class activity, students will snap a photo of their work and upload it to our Google drive.  Then, I choose a piece of student work to display as we review the activity prompt, which has proven to be a great method for maintaining student accountability (I disclosed to the students that I will randomly choose a few days in the semester to award extra credit for those who submitted during class).  Additionally, this provides quick feedback to me (in real time) regarding student comprehension and common misunderstandings; in fact, I will occasionally choose to review a student submission that represents a common mistake to highlight and address a common problem area.

In summary, implementing these small changes has offered realistic approaches to improving my students’ experience and creating community in an otherwise challenging setting: the large lecture.  While I retain other long-term teaching goals that require more of a time commitment, Lang’s sentiment that small ≠ insignificant provides a solid ground for improvement in the present.


Brown, PC, Roediger, HL, and McDaniel, MA (2014). Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cuseo, Joe. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development: 21.

Lang, James (2016).  Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Amber Schlater earned her B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh in Biological Sciences, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University in Zoology; she also completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at McMaster University.  Currently, Amber is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at The College of Saint Scholastica in beautiful Duluth, MN, where she teaches Human Anatomy & Physiology, Super Physiology (a comparative physiology course), and mentors undergraduate research students.  Outside of work, Amber enjoys hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, and doing just about anything she can outside with her family.

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