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Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Improving Student Learning

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Here are the highlights of a talk on teaching large classes given on April 24, 1998 at Stanford University. The speaker was Dr. Graham Gibbs of the Centre for Higher Education Practice at the Open University, a 200,000 student institution in the Unite d Kingdom. 

Gibbs reviews research in the UK and in the US on the impact of large lecture classes on faculty and student behavior and on student learning. He then describes a number of little, or zero-cost methods, for improving stude nt learning in such classes. 

NOTE: If you would like a hardcopy of the more detailed overheads of the talk (thumbnail, six to a page) just send me an e-mail with your address. 


Rick Reis 

------------ 622 words ----------- 

Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Improving Student Learning 

Dr. Graham Gibbs 
Centre for Higher Education Practice 
Open University, UK 

Stanford University 
(notes by R. Reis) 

What research has found? 

*Student ratings: 
* Students dislike large classes 
* They sometimes like very large classes, for dysfunctional reasons:- they can hide- tests are easier 
* Students with unsophisticated conceptions of learning like teachers who have unsophisticated conceptions of teaching 

* Student performance (USA): 
* Performance on introductory large classes not worse, nor is it on subsequent courses (that build on the introductory courses) EXCEPT 
*where assessment taps higher level outcomes 
* where subsequent course had higher level goals 
* This result has helped universities get away with very large introductory courses - if you keep testing with cheap/dirty methods, you wont' catch this. 

*Classroom studies: 
* Pattern of interaction changes as class size grows.- top 3-4 students who participate in a class of 8, still participate at same rate as size grows. - the remaining minimal interaction is just spread over the remainder of the class 
* Quantity, quality of interaction changes 
- % of teacher talking increases as size grows 
- Students questions & answers get shorter 
- Cognitive level of Q & A drops -- start to just ask/deliver facts not ideas 

* UK Quantitative Studies 
(Note on methods: external examiners review exams and set standards, a system not easily available in the U.S.) 
* Correlation between enrollment & marks (grades) is as high as 0.5. Worst affected is social science, then humanities, then technical/engineering 
* Decline of 1% avg. marks for ea. add'l 12 students! 
* 50% more likely to gain C or F when enrollment over 70, than under 20 
* Lots of studies across different institutions, given same systems 
* Negative correlation between amt. of teaching & learning (The more teaching you do, the harder it is for students to prioritize what's important 
* Long-term outcome research shows a dependence on amount of interaction with teachers 
* Teaching and learning-centered descriptions of a course 
*"teaching-centered" schedule at Oxford Brooks: 

Lectures 24 hrs 
Labs 36 hrs 
Problem classes 12 hrs 
* Lots of teacher misunderstanding of how much time students have available, or how much they actually spend outside of class 
*"learning-centered description for same course 
Budget for 120 hours of total student effort in the course 
4 hrs lectures (teaching) 
3 hrs workshops (teaching) 
6 hrs seminars (teaching) 
56 hrs fieldwork (learning) 
10 hrs workshops to present fieldwork (teaching) 
18 hrs preparing fieldwork notes (learning) 
21 hrs preparing reports (learning) 
6 hrs on resource paper 
15 hrs on group report 
120 hrs total, t:l ratio = 1: 4 

*You can brief students on this & track it. 
Understanding total student learning time is the key indicator of learning! 

* What they did to improve situation at minimum cost 
* Course requirement to complete 50 of 70 problem sets 
* Peer assessment in six additional "lecture" sessions (Students' assessment was more personal & direct, but less correct) 
* Grades on these problem sets didn't count! 
* Lectures, problem sets, classes, exams unchanged 
* Result - Average exam increased from 45% to 80% 
Note: More examples given in the overheads. 

* Why did it work? 
* Peer group is more influential 
* Doing the grading made them engage in the solution, not just the problem...they had to use the solution 
* Experience with correcting problems gave them an inside perspective on how to look for problems in the solution 
* More time spent on task (your peers will see it) 

* Focus on learning activity, not teaching 
* Generate learning hours up to your limit 
* Use assessment to lever hours and focus 
* Get students to do for themselves and for each other what you previously did for them 
* Use social mechanisms for peer support and peer pressure 
* See your course as an integrated whole