Large Lectures – scaling for success

This month at ASK at TA!, we discuss teaching in Convocation Hall to address some common issues with scaling up teaching for 600+-student classrooms. Our post is written by Darius Rackus, one of TATP’s Science team trainers and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Scaling up

Descriptors around class size are entirely subjective. What is called a large class by one instructor may not be so deserving of that title to another. As educators, how we choose to describe the size of a class will depend on our experiences as students and educators. For example, in my own undergraduate experience, a tutorial meant five or six students squeezing into a professor’s office, so when I was given my first TA assignment of Introductory Organic Chemistry tutorials—three sections of 45 students each—to me these were large classes. Being able to scale our teaching skills to adapt to various class sizes is important, as it demonstrates an ability to anticipate and work around challenges in various contexts. At the University of Toronto, nothing epitomizes the challenge of scaling up more than Convocation Hall.

The challenge

I was always curious about what it is like to teach in a 1700-seat lecture theatre, so to get an idea of the challenges facing both instructors and students in large classes, I decided to sit in on a Sociology 101 lecture in Con Hall. I had never been to a lecture in Con Hall or anything close to its size. I joined the lecture about 20 minutes after it started and instinctively tiptoed my way in. I was surprised to find that my late arrival wasn’t necessarily something strange since students were regularly walking in and out of the lecture hall. In a class this large, none of the students seemed self-conscious about joining the class late, leaving early, or getting up to meet friends they spotted on the other side of the room.

Con Hall is filled with distractions, and this is no doubt the biggest challenge to teaching classes with more than 600 students. Cell phones, tablets, and laptops were just as prevalent as in any class, but with the added anonymity of the large class, students didn’t seem aware that checking Facebook, shopping on Amazon, or taking selfies with their friends would be a distraction to their or their classmates’ learning.

After my observation, I had a chance to meet with the lecturer, Dr. Christian Caron, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream and the Undergraduate Associate Chair in the Department of Sociology. Caron not only affirmed that anonymity is a challenge in Con Hall, but that it cuts both ways. His students constitute a nameless sea of faces. Conversely, many students don’t know who he is, and to students sitting in the upper tiers, he’s almost completely unrecognizable. Nonetheless, Caron works hard to alleviate this sense of anonymity by promoting community building and by changing the design of the course so that more emphasis is spent on the tutorials and smaller class environments where possible.

Convocation Hall

Photo: HiMY SYeD, University of Toronto Flickr stream


What can teachers do to minimize the challenges of distractions and anonymity in large classrooms? From conversations with TAs and lecturers, it seems that there are three areas that are important for fighting these challenges. Two of these—presence and participation—are things that can be done within the lecture and the third—providing student supports—happens outside and around lectures.

Creating a strong teaching presence within the class can help temper distractions and minimize anonymity by keeping students engaged. I chatted with Tracy Stone, TATP Teaching Excellence Award winner and TA for the approximately 800-student weekly help sessions for a second year biochemistry course that are run in Con Hall. She mentioned that enthusiasm is really important in creating a more engaging and accessible learning environment. Both Stone and Caron told me that teaching in Con Hall is more akin to a performance than it is to delivering a presentation. They are animated and maximize their presence within the space by occupying the whole stage or walking around. This is easiest to do when students are working on a problem or have been given some discussion time. Technology also helps them navigate the content and pace of delivery. Caron controls his lecture slides using a tablet, which allows him to walk around the floor of Con Hall, increasing his connection with some of the students.

Along with creating a strong teaching presence in the classroom, encouraging student participation helps fight distractions and decrease anonymity. Engaging students through active learning techniques gets them involved and also helps them to get to know their neighbours. Dr. Andy Dicks, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, and 3M Teaching Fellow teaches Introductory Organic Chemistry I (a required course for life science students), has incorporated a significant problem-solving component into his classes. This puts students in charge of problem solving and changes his role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”.

How students participate also needs to be rethought when teaching a large class. The setting in Con Hall increases inhibitions students have about asking and answering questions. No one wants to ask a dumb question or give a wrong answer in front of 100 people, let alone 1,000. But, on the plus side, the game of percentages means that larger classes will have a greater pool of students who are eager and willing to participate. Caron remarked that with a class in Con Hall he can get more responses and more rapidly than with fewer students, but that the discussion is still limited to that small percentage of the class. Using student response systems like i>Clickers and mobile apps are one option for creating opportunities for participation, but there wasn’t huge enthusiasm from those I spoke to on the subject. To use them effectively, student response systems require careful thinking. They are really great for quickly surveying a class using multiple choice questions, can be used to stimulate discussion, and the newest models and apps even allow for open-ended questions. Like all technology, they require know-how, preparation, and confidence. To some, they are also one more thing that can break during the lecture, which is one reason why some educators stay away from them.

The support offered to students outside the lecture is something I had never considered with regards to lecturing large classes. Dicks, along with Dr. Kris Quinlan, Associate Professor in Chemistry, Teaching Stream, published a tip sheet for first year chemistry students that connects them with course resources, resources on campus, and how to get the most out of the course. They also hold office hours in classrooms, rather than their office. Additionally, students in their first year chemistry courses are given the opportunity to make appointments to discuss study skills and learning strategies after the first term test results are released. Being available on a regular basis (and advertising it) as well as creating an atmosphere where students view their lecturers as accessible helps to downplay the anonymity students might feel within a large course.

Tips for success

In preparing to teach a large class for the first time, especially in a venue like Con Hall, there are a few additional things new instructors might want to consider. First, if you’ve never been a student in a class as large as the one you’re about to teach, find an opportunity to observe a similarly sized class at your institution. Caron suggests observing lectures within both your own discipline and from other departments. While making your observations, try to sit at the back or, in the case of Con Hall, in the upper tiers. This will give you a sense of the challenges facing students at a distance from you. Observations can go both ways too. Once the course has started, Dicks suggests that you ask a colleague to come in or solicit student feedback on their experience in your class. It’s also helpful to talk with experienced colleagues, especially someone in your department who has taught in that context before. And while you’re lecturing, remember that the intimidating sea of faces are all students who want to learn. Dicks even suggests to “have the mindset that you want students talking about your class over dinner” as a way to frame your teaching attitude.

Despite the challenges of lecturing a large class, there are many advantages. One direct advantage and immediately transferrable skill for graduate students is an opportunity to practice and improve your public speaking. Having to “perform” on a weekly basis really helped to improve Stone’s confidence in public speaking, which has aided her with delivering conference presentations. Lecturing large classes should be considered a privilege. Caron and I discussed this point and he mentioned that there is great responsibility both to our students and to our field when teaching large survey courses. As we assume the role of champions and proselytizers of our disciplines, large classes offer a distinct forum for sharing with both specialists and non-specialists the excitement of our subject. These classes may be the only time that some students encounter the subject, and it is an immense privilege to be their teacher in this opportunity.

Further resources

For more about experiences about teaching in Convocation Hall, check out this series of interviews at U of T News with U of T profs who regularly teach there, including Christian Caron.

If you want to work on your classroom presence, be it for a large lecture or a small tutorial, TATP has workshops about teaching as performance. Check out our webpage this fall for upcoming workshops.