Teaching Large Classes--Advice from Faculty

The McGraw Center recently hosted a faculty discussion on teaching large classes led by a panel of four Princeton faculty. Beth Bogan, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Michael Hecht, Professor of Chemistry, Lee Silver, Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Policy, and Michael Smith, Professor of Philosophy. Here we share a few of the ideas that arose from that discussion, both from panelists and audience members.

Planning and Organizing a Large Lecture Course

  • Structure assignments to help promote the kind of work that your discipline requires (e.g., writing, problem-solving) and weight assignments to allow those who improve during the semester to benefit from doing so.
  • Meet with preceptors before the class begins to set policies on the conduct of precepts, and meet with them regularly to follow the progress of the precepts, to design grading rubrics for assignments, and to hold sample grading sessions to moderate grades.* During such sessions, you can have several preceptors grade the same student paper or problem set and share with the group the rationale they used for assigning the grade. Helping preceptors think through grading issues in this way can help promote consistency across sections.

Preparing Lectures

  • Compose each lecture as a chapter of the unfolding story of the course. Include a manageable number of points in each lecture—three to five are common.
  • Provide students with a lecture outline online just before class either as a document file or via PowerPoint. But avoid using PowerPoint as a complete record of your notes. Instead use it primarily for images, graphs, and other visuals, and as a lecture outline. In this way, you provide students some needed support for their notes, but still give them a reason to attend the lecture.

During Lectures

  • Make yourself accessible. Announce your office hours regularly, come to class early, and stay after class to talk with students and answer questions. These moments provide great opportunities for you to get feedback about the course as well as to show your interest in your student's progress. Take opportunities to gather more structured feedback from your students via anonymous midterm feedback forms or one-minute papers (short questions at the end of class) to find out how they're experiencing the course. This tactic helps prevent surprises at the end of the semester on course evaluations. 
  • Shape student's expectations. Be transparent about what you want students to learn in the course, what aspects may be difficult, or why some topics may seem uninteresting. Pointing out how their interest and hard work will pay off in the course can help students understand and appreciate your approach. Provide regular assignments for students to apply what they’re learning and give them feedback on their progress. 
  • Recognize the performance aspects of a large lecture and keep your audience engaged by using your stage presence: make eye contact, move away from the podium and into the audience, and avoid the appearance of reading lectures, either from notes or PowerPoint. Ask students questions periodically to keep them engaged and change the pace of the class. Show your enthusiasm for the opic—it’s infectious. 
  • Connect to students’ lives, interests and concerns whenever possible by using current events or students’ own experience to illustrate course concepts. Show pictures or give some interesting biographic details of the people whose works are being discussed to make their ideas more interesting and accessible to students.
  • Teach at multiple levels. In a large class, there will be students with widely varying abilities and backgrounds. Present topics in such a way that the take-home is clear to everyone, but add in advanced ideas from time to time to capture the interest of those who have the background to understand them. Make it clear to the class when ideas go beyond what all students might be able to appreciate.

For more ideas, you may check out Teaching the Large College Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes by Frank Heppner.

*The McGraw Center provides funds (called the Mentoring Fund) for course heads and AIs of large classes to meet regularly over a meal to discuss the work of the course. For more information check our website or call 609-258-2575.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.