Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies


Elisa Carbone

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Starting Out Right

    Part II: Presenting the Material

    Part III: Getting Your Students Involved

    Part IV: Managing Your Large Class

  • Survival Skills for Scholars

    Managing Editor: Peter Labella

    Survival Skills for Scholars provides you, the professor or advanced graduate student working in a college or university setting, with practical suggestions for making the most of your academic career. These brief, readable guides will help you with skills that you are required to master as a college professor but may have never been taught in graduate school. Using hands-on, jargon-free advice and examples, forms, lists, and suggestions for additional resources, experts on different aspects of academic life give invaluable tips on managing the day-to-day tasks of academia—effectively and efficiently.

    Volumes in This Series

    • Improving Your Classroom Teaching

      by Maryellen Weimer

    • How to Work With the Media

      by James Alan Fox & Jack Levin

    • Developing a Consulting Practice

      by Robert O. Metzger

    • Tips for Improving Testing and Grading

      by John C. Ory & Katherine E. Ryan

    • Coping With Faculty Stress

      by Walter H. Gmelch

    • Confronting Diversity Issues on Campus

      by Benjamin P. Bowser, Gale S. Auletta, & Terry Jones

    • Effective Committee Service

      by Neil J. Smelser

    • Getting Tenure

      by Marcia Lynn Whicker, Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, & Ruth Ann Strickland

    • Improving Writing Skills: Memos, Letters, Reports, and Proposals

      by Arthur Asa Berger

    • Getting Your Book Published

      by Christine S. Smedley, Mitchell Allen & Associates

    • Successful Publishing in Scholarly Journals

      by Bruce A. Thyer

    • Teaching from a Multicultural Perspective

      by Helen R. Roberts & Associates

    • Planning a Successful Conference

      by Cynthia Winter

    • Dealing With Ethical Dilemmas on Campus

      by Marcia Lynn Whicker & Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld

    • Chairing an Academic Department

      by Walter H. Gmelch &Val D. Miskin

    • How to Make Effective Presentations

      by Elizabeth P. Tierney

    • Getting an Academic Job

      by Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld & Marcia Lynn Wliicker

    • Convention Survival Techniques: Practical Strategies for Getting the Most Out of Your Professional Association's Meetings

      by Louis R. Franzini & Sue Rosenberg Zalk

    • Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies

      by Elisa Carbone


    View Copyright Page


    Liarge classes present a special challenge for institutions of higher education and those of us who teach in them—a particular challenge that is not present in K-12 classrooms, where the majority of teaching and learning challenges have been studied most deeply.

    At a time when much has been discerned—and discussed—about the importance of active learning, student-centered teaching, and shared responsibility for the success of student-learning outcomes, large classes (in our definition, over 100 students) represent an anomaly. How can you personalize your teaching and make it more interactive when you have so many students to deal with? This question, asked many times—and repeatedly—by a growing number of college professors, poses the dilemma that this book attempts to ameliorate. By answering the question directly, and taking its referent seriously and realistically, the chapters in this book offer tangible assistance and potential relief.

    Although it might be ideal to be able to change all the large classes into small ones, that's just not going to happen. The economic and traditional realities that control most decisions at colleges and universities won't allow it. The alternative is to support a serious attempt to improve the situation within the realistic and comprehensive context of priorities that we face in higher education. That's how this project began.

    The “Large Classes Project” arose out of a University of Maryland campuswide engagement with Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI, aka TQM, Total Quality Management). As part of a major commitment to use the processes of CQI to improve important aspects of the university environment, each campus vice president was asked to choose a significant issue to tackle through a dedicated CQI project designed to identify underlying problems and propose solutions. The Vice President for Academic Affairs selected the issue of large classes as the priority concern for this extraordinary initiative.

    It's important that this topic was identified as a priority issue by the top level of our campus academic administration. By doing so, the institution officially recognized that the matter of improving large classes exists in a context—indeed in a kind of ecological system—consisting of theoretical frameworks for teaching and learning, administrative structures and customary procedures for decision making (Who teaches these classes? What criteria? What supports will be given?), limitations of physical facilities, and instructor skill and effectiveness levels. Consistent with this recognition, the CQI Large Classes Team was assembled with attention to the “cross-functional” nature of the problem to be addressed. Faculty from many disciplines; administrators from the domains of student services, facilities, and finance; and students from graduate and undergraduate levels were included in the team. Because the Center for Teaching Excellence, located in the office of the Dean for Undergraduate Studies, was a logical place to assume central leadership on this issue, I was asked to chair the team.

    With the help of a professional facilitator who possessed expertise in CQI processes, the Large Classes Team established a schedule of weekly meetings and began to attack the problem by brainstorming what the underlying problems might be, what data we needed to inform our work, and how we could best respond to this daunting challenge on a university campus with hundreds of classes in the “large” category, 35,000 students, and 3,000 faculty members—most of whom had little if any education in the area of pedagogy. We succeeded in designing and implementing a very effective process, which included gathering systematic data from faculty who taught large classes, students who had experience in taking large classes, and some administrators who had access to additional relevant data. The team produced a number of data-based recommendations, and these recommendations reflected our strong sense that responsibility for improving large classes needed to be taken by the faculty who taught these classes, of course, but also by the departments, colleges, and central administrative offices whose decisions have such a great impact on these faculty. Recommendations included the need for self-studies of selection and reward system procedures (we found a tremendous variation here) used by departments and colleges in administering large classes, facilities rehabilitation, and an array of faculty development initiatives that could stimulate individual creative solutions within the discipline, build on some good examples and practices already present on campus, and support accessible and practical assistance for the many faculty and teaching assistants called upon to teach undergraduates in these large class environments. The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) was asked to coordinate a number of these improvement efforts. Among the first recommendations we responded to was the creation of a Large Classes Handbook (written by Dr. Jennifer Robinson, then a member of the CTE staff), which was mailed to every faculty member identified as teaching a class of 100 students or more. This initial effort was well received and set the stage for more extensive activities.

    With the support of Robert Hampton, Associate Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Studies, we were able to attract Elisa Carbone to join the CTE and serve as coordinator of the “Large Classes Project.” Elisa's experience in teaching and in other aspects of faculty development, with an emphasis on effective lecturing skills, provided just the right resources for this project, and her personal vitality and ability to communicate so well made her involvement a very happy piece of this endeavor. Elisa and I examined the scope of the large classes issue, diagrammed various possibilities, and analyzed what had been done and what might be most fruitful to do as a next step; and then Elisa came up with a stupendous idea, the Large Classes Newsletter, an idea that became the basis for the contents of this book. By combining research on the successful strategies, good ideas, and experienced insights of a variety of faculty; by visiting classes and observing effective techniques in action; and by sampling relevant professional literature in the field, Elisa could gather truly useful and original content to communicate to interested faculty. Indeed, that's what she has done, and we are delighted that readers from many other campuses now will be able to share some of the fine ideas that have emerged from this project.

    Taken together, this compilation is a valuable asset. It is an individual creative achievement for Elisa Carbone and a contribution of a University of Maryland process that has effectively combined top-level support from Academic Affairs and Undergraduate Studies with institutional coordination by the Center for Teaching Excellence and Elisa's talent and hard work. The ideas and suggestions should relate well to all teachers and institutions seeking solutions for the tough problem of improving large classes and making learning in all environments a productive, enjoyable, and positive experience—both for their students and for themselves.



    I would like to thank:

    Jim Greenberg, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, who got me started in the Large Classes Project and supported me every step of the way.

    Robert Hampton, Associate Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Studies, for his leadership, commitment to the Project, and ongoing financial support.

    Marianne Eismann, Assistant to the Dean, for her expert editing of my first drafts, and all of the faculty members who welcomed me into classrooms and offices to share their teaching expertise.


    Listening to the Experts

    In the fall of 19951 was invited to work with Jim Greenberg on the “Large Classes Project” at the Center For Teaching Excellence (CTE) at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP). We had a small budget and a large goal: help our faculty to improve their teaching in large classes.

    First, I had to be brought-up-to-date, because the work had begun the year before. I studied the results of student and faculty questionnaires and focus groups, read materials that had been developed, such as the Large Classes Handbook, visited classrooms where large classes were being taught, and met with Jim and several faculty members who had been involved in the previous discussions of this issue.

    Next, Jim and I dove into brainstorming. We took out a large sheet of newsprint and several colored markers (essential equipment for deep thought) and started throwing around possibilities. We wanted something that would reach as many faculty as possible and be as effective as possible. Individual meetings with faculty often seemed to have the greatest impact on teaching improvement, but it would not be practical to meet with each large class instructor. So, whereas individual meetings wouldn't work as a way to reach everyone, we decided to keep them in mind because of their effectiveness. In addition, the CTE already had an excellent seminar series under way and the feedback from these sessions had been quite positive. We could plan workshops aimed specifically toward large classes faculty, but we knew that only a fraction of the 300 of them would attend. Some faculty weren't asking for new teaching ideas, so we needed something to get them interested in a way that faculty workshops didn't always do. We decided to keep faculty seminars on our list of options, with the recognition that they would not be the total answer. We left that afternoon with a very colorful piece of newsprint, and no definitive decisions about what to do next.

    New ideas tend to ripen with age. During the next several weeks a plan began to take shape. Individual meetings with faculty could be used to “pick their brains” for what was working well in their classrooms. This would show recognition and value for their good practices. This information then could be shared in a series of articles in a newsletter. Large classes faculty would receive, every month or so, ideas from their peers. Then, in the privacy of their own offices, they could make decisions about whether or not their own teaching practices could use a little infusion of new strategies from the newsletter. It would be like a faculty workshop by mail. The newsletter would be interesting (I even hired a cartoonist!), would reach everyone, and would show appreciation for the talent present at UMCP. The Large Classes Newsletter was born.

    The information for the newsletter has been gleaned by listening to the experts. They are not necessarily the most published faculty, nor are they all nationally known leaders of seminars on large classes teaching. They are the instructors who, for years, have been teaching large classes, learning by trial and error, coming up with terrific ideas, and quietly using them semester after semester in their own classes. I added to their input some of the excellent information I found in the literature about each topic.

    Here is how we got the newsletter started: First, we sent out a questionnaire and a plea for help. “We're planning a Large Classes Newsletter,” we said, “and we'd like to know who is good at using active learning in large classes, who makes their classes personal, who has good ideas for the first class of the semester,” and so forth. There were 11 topics, and a space under each one for faculty to fill in their own name or the name of a colleague whom they knew to be successfully using some teaching idea. The topics were derived from the concerns we'd been hearing from both students and faculty in the brainstorming sessions and questionnaire research that preceded this stage of the project. From the list of topics and faculty responses, I compiled a list of names from which to begin the research.

    For some topics, I invited faculty to attend a brainstorming session. Over grapes and cheese we discussed the issue. Ideas built on other ideas and I took notes on pitfalls and suggestions. For other topics, I visited classrooms and conducted face-to-face or phone interviews. As I went along, the original list of faculty to contact kept growing. I'd call someone about, say, lecturing tips. He or she would volunteer to let me visit the class, and also add that so-and-so had some great ideas about lecturing as well. Or I'd call to invite someone to the brainstorming session on classroom management. After agreeing to come, he or she would add, “I heard that Mady Segal's students don't come in late or leave early. Could you please find out how in the world she does that?” or “Someone told me Howard Smead from History has a fool-proof method of taking attendance in a large lecture hall. You should call him and find out how he does it.” And I'd have two more names on my list.

    As the research continued, more topics were added. We sent out several more questionnaires asking for more names (there are different faculty teaching large classes each semester, and we didn't want to leave anyone out), and asking “What question would you like to ask other teachers of large classes?” and “What topic are you interested in that we haven't covered yet?”

    The response has been excellent. We have letters to the editor, requests for copies of the newsletter from faculty who want to pass them on to their teaching assistants (TAs), letters from faculty thanking me for reporting so well on their teaching practices, and always another volunteer saying “you can visit my class.” Faculty tell us it's helpful to see what others are doing, and that they appreciate the fact that specific strategies are presented. As one instructor wrote, “[The Newsletter] always has a tip or idea. When I try them, they work!”

    Two and a half years of the newsletter, with information added when my editor at Sage, Peter Labella, felt it would be helpful, have become this book. I hope that it will be as valuable to you in your teaching of large classes as it has been to the faculty I've worked with to put it together.

  • About the Author

    Elisa Carbone is the coordinator of the Large Classes Project for the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Maryland. As part of this project she publishes the Large Classes Newsletter for UM faculty and TAs. She is a member of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) and serves on the Diversity Commision for that organization. Since 1992 she has presented regularly at POD conferences.

    Carbone is also a faculty member, freelance writer, and workshop leader. She teaches in the speech communication department at University of Maryland University College, where she has been nominated for the Excellence in Teaching Award. She is the author of five published and up-coming novels for young people. She conducts workshops nationwide on such instructional issues as active learning, lecturing skills and teaching large classes.

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