Overcoming the Challenges of Large Courses

Concern over large courses (especially required ones) persists even as their economic viability has made them an increasingly accepted part of higher education. We’re not expecting them to go away any time soon, but that doesn’t minimize the challenges associated with teaching and learning in them. On the the teaching side, they’re not usually led by faculty with any special preparation to teach them, and lecture becomes the easiest instructional option. For most learners, however, listening to lectures is a recipe for passivity. In addition, introductory courses are most often taken by beginning students, the cohort least ready to handle their anonymity. It’s hard to feel at home in a class with 150 strangers. And the feedback students receive is rarely substantial—usually only points or a grade from which it’s difficult to glean improvement specifics.

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Concern over large courses (especially required ones) persists even as their economic viability has made them an increasingly accepted part of higher education. We’re not expecting them to go away any time soon, but that doesn’t minimize the challenges associated with teaching and learning in them. On the the teaching side, they’re not usually led by faculty with any special preparation to teach them, and lecture becomes the easiest instructional option. For most learners, however, listening to lectures is a recipe for passivity. In addition, introductory courses are most often taken by beginning students, the cohort least ready to handle their anonymity. It’s hard to feel at home in a class with 150 strangers. And the feedback students receive is rarely substantial—usually only points or a grade from which it’s difficult to glean improvement specifics.

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On top of all these concerns, there’s the evidence documenting that beginning courses play an important role in students’ decisions to stay or leave college. As a consequence, some institutions and departments have tried to change what typically happens in large courses. Consider the following case: A psychology department at a big Midwestern university made some significant changes in their introductory course in 2012 (Whisenhunt et al., 2019). The changes improved learning outcomes and decreased the number of students who withdrew or earned low grades. Specifically, they redesigned the course to better engage the 330 students enrolled in it, decrease anonymity, and increase individual feedback.

The research team, which included faculty associated with the course, wondered whether the course revisions would change student perceptions of the course from the first to the last day of class, and they wanted to see whether the improvements they anticipated occurred regardless of class size. They also (bravely) hypothesized that students in the large course would rate it similarly to students taking the course in small sections. Study participants included 2,422 students enrolled in a total of four sections of the large course and 154 students enrolled two smaller sections.

“Our prediction that students’ perceptions of their class would improve from the first day to the last day of class was confirmed” (p. 124). Even so, at the end of the course students in the small sections still rated those sections higher than students in the large sections rated theirs, but not by much. The faculty researchers write that it’s important to consider that even though the smaller classes earned the higher ratings, “those differences might not be large enough to justify the large amount of resources necessary to deliver courses in smaller sections” (p. 125). Class sizes of 30–35 students would require 42 to 50 sections, which would raise the cost to deliver the course “dramatically” (p. 125). That’s noteworthy given the resources allocated to the large sections: five full-time instructors and five learning assistants (most of them graduate students).

The course redesign promotes students’ engagement with a student response system, peer instruction, and active learning strategies that get all students present involved in each day’s planned activity. The learning assistants tackle problems of anonymity. Each are assigned a group of students, and various means are used to connect students with their respective learning assistant. Learning assistants offer study sessions. Students also get email feedback on their exam scores, and those who are struggling are invited to meet with an instructor to develop improvement goals.

Large courses with these design features are not the norm, but they do show that course characteristics known to improve learning and course-related experiences can be incorporated into large courses and that when they are, they can make a difference.

One other item of interest: “Surprisingly, when we examined the data by instructor, we found improvement in just one instructor’s classes among the small sections and in just two instructor’s sections among the large sections, suggesting that individual instructor variables may be as important as class size in influencing students’ perceptions of the course” (p. 125). I’m not sure this should be a surprise. Haven’t we known for a long time that who’s teaching the big classes makes a difference? If only we could get our departments and programs to act on what we know. Large courses require special teaching skills; not every teacher has them. Those who do should be supported and rewarded for using them in this most challenging teaching situation. Students at the front end of a college experience deserve the best we can deliver, and often that’s not what they get.

Reference

Whisenhunt, B. L., Cathey, C., Visio, M. E., Hudson, D. L., Shoptaugh, C. F., & Rost, A. D. (2019). Strategies to address challenges with large classes: Can we exceed student expectations for large class experiences? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5(2), 121–127. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000135