Teaching large groups
The larger the group, the greater the likelihood of increased student diversity. Hence, ‘the fewer values, assumptions, and beliefs shared by a group of people who gather to talk, the harder it is for them to understand one another’ (Brookfield & Preskill 2005, p. 226).
Compounding this, large enrolments can promote student disengagement and feelings of alienation, particularly for those from equity group backgrounds. For example, for students who are newly arrived to Australia, from rural or remote regions, mature-age, first in family, or have a disability—imagine how overwhelming it may feel to enter a lecture theatre of 300 or more. Teaching large cohorts therefore magnifies how to tackle inclusivity and foster an engaging and communal learning experience for all students. Teaching online will raise some different challenges to located spaces. These are discussed separately, but some general tips can be adapted to suit.
Make your practice inclusive by carefully considering students’ sociocultural backgrounds, differing abilities, and accessibility issues.
Make sessions inclusive: key starter tips
Clarify expectations and clearly set out your expectations and establish ground rules in collaboration with students.
Be available for student consultations and advise your students of your contact details and when/where you will be available to them (email, discussion boards, Skype, physical location).
Create interest and rapport
- Introduce yourself and your research interest; wear a name tag.
- Adopt an open and relaxed style where students feel safe, comfortable and included.
- Plan appropriate and well-structured questions in advance.
- Encourage questions from your students.
- Personalise the course content as much as possible (e.g. include personal stories related to unit material).
- Maintain eye contact with as many people as possible (in located spaces).
- Acknowledge your online audience in recorded classes.
- Be inclusive of your online audience in video-conferenced classes/seminars; specifically ask for responses and invite discussion from other campuses/locations.
- For live online lectures use a webcam so that your students get to know you (see DTeach >Video and Audio tools for help).
- For pre-recorded classes (see DTeach >Video and Audio tools for help), use a webcam to engage your students, and also ensure the classes are accurately captioned and have transcripts.
Post a welcome message to welcome your students to your unit. This is both a requirement and a great way to let your students know the teaching team. Here is a Welcome Message Infographic (PDF 580KB) with tips on how to make a welcome video. This DeakinAir video shows How to post welcome message videos to Home Page. Here’s a great example of a Welcome message from Business and Law.
Repeat questions so that the whole class can hear; answer empathically to questions.
Vary pace during the class to maintain interest (e.g. use a range of media to emphasise and illustrate key points).
Provide a signposted class/seminar structure
- Start by outlining the content to be covered, and what you expect your students to gain from the session.
- Provide summaries throughout the study period and signal what you will be discussing next.
Signal key concepts by emphasising key ideas to your students.
Use plain language to clearly explain discipline-specific concepts, terms and academic 'jargon'.
Use examples that are universally understood by avoiding Australian/western-centric cultural or humorous references.
Provide a glossary of discipline- or culturally-specific vocabulary.
Use multiple formats to aid student understanding (e.g. images, infographics, videos, podcasts) and provide materials to facilitate revision (e.g. slide presentations, class recordings, and handouts).
Provide lecture content online; we recommend two or three days before the teaching session to allow adequate time for students using assistive technologies.
Exemplar: video welcome for Deakin's Arts-Ed international/ESL students
Approximately 2.8% of Deakin's student population is from non-English speaking backgrounds (Equity Indicators Deakin University mid‐year 2016 (PDF 131KB)). So you could create a short welcome video in different languages such as this one:
A multilingual welcome to Arts and Education students
A video transcript may be downloaded here: Multilingual welcome (DOCX 15KB)
Encourage discussion and engage with students during classes by asking questions that require responses.
Include regular opportunities for students to discuss key points among themselves (attention tends to wane after 15 to 20 minutes). Suggested activities include:
- think, pair, share
- buzz groups (small groups of students responding to a question)
- role plays
- problem-solving task
- the one minute paper (students spend one minute writing the main point of the class)
- mini quizzes or true/false responses
- a show of hands to a particular question.
Here are 10 activities for teaching large groups (PDF 4.83) where small group work may not be practical.
Example: problem solving activity
The following is a now much-used brain-teaser, which you can use to engage your students' critical thinking skills. This could be done in small groups in a class or seminar or posted in an online discussion. You can adapt this with different surnames and genders to better reflect diversity in your audience.
On a train, Singh, O'Riley, and Gonzalez are the driver, conductor, and the engineer, but NOT respectively. Also aboard the train are three passengers who have the same names: a Ms. Singh, a Mr. O'Riley, and a Mr. Gonzalez. Using the clues below, can you determine the identity of the engineer?
- Mr. O'Riley lives in Melbourne.
- The conductor lives exactly halfway between Geelong and Melbourne.
- Mr. Gonzalez earns exactly $5,000 per year.
- The conductor's nearest neighbour, one of the passengers, earns exactly three times as much as the conductor.
- Singh beats the driver in tennis.
- The passenger whose name is the same as the conductor's lives in Geelong.
- Mr. O'Riley lives in Melbourne and the brakeman's nearest neighbour earns exactly 3 times as much as the conductor. Therefore, neither Mr. O'Riley nor Mr. Gonzalez are the conductor's nearest neighbour, so it must be Ms. Singh.
- Singh beats the driver at tennis and the passenger whose name is the same as the conductor's lives in Geelong. Mr. O'Riley lives in Melbourne and Ms. Singh lives between Geelong and Melbourne. Therefore, it must be Mr. Gonzalez who lives in Geelong and Gonzalez is the conductor.
- Singh is not the conductor and therefore not the driver. Singh must be the engineer.
Source: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica a version of this brain-teaser was published in Mathematics for Pleasure
(Jacoby & Benson 1962)
Create a community of active learners
- Encourage students to engage in dialogue, ask and respond to questions, and support and learn from each other.
- Build a sense of community by creating opportunities for students to work together in class to support and learn collectively from each other through group work and peer instruction. See the section on this site Enjoy group work for examples.
Teaching large groups online
Dividing discussions into groups
A discussion group larger than 20 ideally should be split. Very large discussion groups are cumbersome because:
- it gives too much opportunity for people to 'lurk', be overlooked, silent or have minimal input
- it generates too much content for either you or the students to wade through
- it requires a more complex discussion activity, otherwise the first responders who answer the question adequately leave little for latecomers to say.
Strategies to generate discussion groups online
- Group students according to what they have in common (professional stream, work, degree type, interest, assignment topic).
- Group students according to differences (i.e. separate people who are from the same background).
- Make groups visible/invisible to one another, depending on your purposes
- Consider assessing discussion activities.
- Include group assignments.
- Set defined group tasks and ask students to report back.
Managing online discussion
- Netiquette: establish netiquette rules for respectful, polite, courteous, and inclusive online communication
- Word length: set minimum and maximum word lengths for posts depending upon the task
- Posting responses: explain how to post replies, provide clear subject headers that reflect post content, and to cite the content to which students are responding.
- Required posts: consider how many posts students must submit that is manageable for a large cohort.
- Answering student questions: if there are many questions, consider combining your answers thematically rather than replying individually. Encourage class members to answer student queries. This helps to foster a supportive and collaborative learning environment.
Use Skype live chat as 'office-hours'
- Schedule live chat sessions before assignment due dates. This minimises time needed to be available to help with assignment/unit questions.
- For staff assistance go to How do I get started with Skype? Refer students to Deakin Anywhere: Lync for Students.
- Your online unit site needs to make self-direction very clear.
- Self-directed study requires clear instructions and organisation of content, sufficient quality materials, and access to good resources:
- map out the progression of unit content, and align with learning outcomes, assessment tasks, and resources
- signpost key points and concepts for each topic area
- provide explicit directions that distinguish between required and further/recommended readings.
- The preparation pushes more of your workload to prior to the unit going live.
- Consider complimenting online resources and discussion forums with periodic online seminars (perhaps 3 or 4 during the trimester).
- While there may be less direct teaching you need to make yourself available to respond individually to student questions and problems.
Using digital technology: Deakin academic inspires 2000+ students
Deakin's Dr Jac Broadbent demonstrates how to inspire 2000+ students
Dr Jaclyn (Jac) Broadbent (Faculty of Health) motivates and inspires students in ways that break boundaries. She uses the Aspire2Achieve (A2A) framework—an approach that uses short, personalised videos and text messages to keep students on track and motivated.
‘When I became Unit Chair in 2011, despite managing a cohort of 2000+ students, I wanted all students to feel they mattered, that I was paying attention and supporting their learning. However, connecting and tracking so many students was a significant challenge… In 2012, I created the A2A framework to engage and retain my students. Rather than being exclusively for high or low performers, this framework is designed to reach all students by recognising: high achievers (80%+ or top 10 mark), student improvement (based on improved performance over time), and students at risk of failure or disengagement (late submission or poor performance on an assessment). Much of this framework is automated, using Intelligent Agent, which is an online tool in CloudDeakin. In 2014, I added the use of text messages (SMS), after realising at-risk students were not checking their institutional email. Finally, when students complete a milestone (e.g., finish all quizzes), they receive a personalised, congratulatory video.’
Jac Broadbent, extract from Deakin Network, April 2017
Bigelow, L 2017, In profile: Jaclyn Broadbent, Network: your Deakin staff news, weblog post, April 2017, retrieved 10 May 2017.
Brookfield, S & Preskill, S 2005, Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic classrooms Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, retrieved 18 April 2017, via ProQuest Ebook Central http://library.deakin.edu.au/record=b2918117~S1.
Contents of this page were adapted from the following resources:
ACU n.d., Large groups: teaching them online
Burnett, L & Krause, K-L n.d, Good practice guide: teaching large classes (PDF 285KB). Griffith Institute for Higher Education (now Griffith University Learning Futures). Reproduced for Deakin staff with permission by Griffith University, 26 April 2018.
Faculty Focus 2009, Tips for managing large online classes
Plymouth University 2014, 7 Steps to enhancing large group teaching (PDF 41KB)
Shadrack JA, Adu EO & Adelabu OA 2014, 'An Investigation into the Effective Assessment Practices Use in Large Classes at the University', Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 6, pp. 256–262, (CC BY 3.0).
University of North Carolina Charlotte 2018, Teaching Large Classes