Large group teaching
How to teach and manage large groups of students and where to find further resources.
1 August 2019
With the general trend across higher education for bigger cohort sizes, many of the classes you’ll teach at UCL will be likely to involve large groups of students.
Teaching large groups poses several challenges, such as:
- keeping students interested and engaged (and knowing whether they’re all paying attention)
- ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to learn (see the Inclusive teaching toolkit)
- ensuring that students’ work is marked consistently, if several members of staff jointly teach a group.
- answering students’ questions and giving them feedback outside teaching time.
What large-group teaching means
Large-group teaching involves class sizes of 25 or more students, often in a big lecture hall setting.
However, one teacher’s definition of a ‘large’ group may be very different from another’s.
It also depends on the subject. For example, in some programmes such as medicine, large groups could include several hundred students.
Putting it into practice
Planning your sessions
When teaching large groups, planning is essential. Think in advance about how each session is going to work.
At the module design stage, ensure you include a range of learning activities and assessments that enable all students to engage with the subject matter. Check that each session allows your students to move towards achieving the learning outcomes for the module.
Put all your teaching materials on Moodle (UCL’s online learning environment) well before your teaching sessions so that all your students can access these and prepare themselves.
If you have time, look at your students’ profiles on Moodle before your first session. Knowing at least some of their names beforehand can help you establish a good rapport with the class.
Keeping students engaged
In large classes it can be difficult to know whether the students are learning.
Tips to keep students engaged include:
- not lecturing for more than 20 minutes at a time
- breaking sessions up into smaller parts, each with a different activity
- allowing time for students to reflect on lecture material, for example by asking them to discuss a question in pairs or groups and then report back to the class
- doing things differently from time to time, such as using props (e.g. a soft ‘question ball’ that moves around the class – when students have the ball, they must answer) or lecturing from different places in the hall.
Adding spontaneity to lectures
Incorporate spontaneity into your lectures by encouraging students to answer questions on the spot or by allowing five minutes of ‘think-pair-share’ – when students think about the answer to a question and then get into pairs to discuss it.
Have a plan for bringing the room back to order through a timer or loud noise embedded in your lecture slides.
A combination of planning, willingness to experiment and a sense of humour will help students to engage with the lecture.
Encouraging active learning
When breaking up lectures into different parts, try to include segments that get students actively engaged in the learning process. See the Active learning toolkit for activities you could try.
Technology, such as ‘clickers’ or free apps like Socrative, can help get students actively engaged with the subject. See the digital education toolkit for more ways to include technology in your teaching.
Invest time in developing a repertoire of active learning techniques to support student learning in large groups.
It might not happen all in one term, but over time you’ll find the best strategies to support your module goals.
Exams and assessments
Two-stage exams and exam wrappers are simple and effective ways to encourage engagement and active learning in large groups.
In a two-stage exam, students spend the first three quarters of the session taking a traditional exam (i.e. on their own). Once they hand in this exam, students then get into small groups for the remaining time and take a second exam. This requires students to work together to solve one of the hardest problems from the first exam. Students can see how other people tried to solve the problem and learn from any mistakes they made.
You could also try adding an ‘exam wrapper’ to your exam. Ask students three to four short questions on how well prepared they felt and which topics they found most challenging. This can help you determine if your teaching sessions addressed your learning outcomes.
When teaching a large group jointly with colleagues, check with one another that you are all marking consistently.
There are various guides about assessment and feedback on UCL’s Teaching and Learning Portal, including tips on how to give quicker feedback.
Managing feedback workload
Be clear with your students at the start of a module about how often you will be able to check and answer their questions via email or Moodle.
Set a cut-off time for questions in the run-up to exams.
Also be clear about when and for how long students can come and see you outside of class, for example by publishing your office hours on Moodle.
As well as giving feedback to students, you can also ask students for feedback as a way of evaluating your teaching at the mid-point and end of term.
Where to find help and support
Find out how UCL colleagues approach teaching large groups. You could:
- contact your faculty’s or department’s teaching committee
- speak to your teaching lead
- attend an Arena event.
Once you’ve researched a list of possible learning activities, choose at least three to try during one term. If students respond positively, add more.
Take time to reflect on what worked well and what could improve at the middle and end of your module. How could you enhance the three learning activities you implemented?
UCL also encourages colleagues to give one another feedback, for example through the UCL Peer Dialogue scheme.
Connected Curriculum Our framework for research-based education at UCL. Explore the six dimensions and get tips and advice on how to further enhance your programmes of study.
Distance Learning An increasing number of UCL courses are fully online distance learning, or mostly-online 'blended learning' (where students might come for compressed teaching). With recent technological developments, reaching out to a truly global audience has become ever more possible for credit-bearing programmes or the growing field of life learning (CPD, short courses etc).
Object-based learning Using objects in teaching not only helps students to understand their subject but also develops academic and transferable skills such as team work and communication, analytical research skills, practical observation and drawing skills. It can also trigger innovative dissertation topics. This link takes you to the Object-based learning section on the UCL Culture website.
For more practical examples of things to try when teaching large groups, see:
- Large-group teaching tips from the Higher Education Academy.
- 7 ways to engage students in lectures from King’s Learning Institute at King’s College London.
- Teaching large classes from Vanderbilt University.
This guide has been produced by the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the UCL Arena Centre.