Case Study: Engaging Students in Large Lectures

Dr. Stacey Combes faculty spotlight photo


How a former Harvard Professor began engaging students in large lectures at the University of California, Davis with Packback.

Dr. Stacey Combes, Associate Professor


UC Davis


Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior


Animal Behavior


170-400 Students

After teaching at Harvard University for seven years, Dr. Stacey Combes was excited to pursue tenure at the University of California, Davis. But transferring to UC Davis meant trading intimate, discussion-driven classes for amphitheaters filled with hundreds of non-majors. Even with years of teaching experience and a number of prestigious awards for teaching undergraduates, Dr. Combes knew there would be a challenge in engaging students in large lectures of more than 400 students. Especially since this was her first time teaching Animal Behavior.

“I was really just trying to scramble and figure out what to do and to talk to colleagues to get advice,” says Dr. Combes. “I had a bunch of colleagues who teach [Animal Behavior] give me their lecture notes. A lot of the older professors who have more experience in the topic, their lectures would just be a picture and three words and I am like, ‘What am I supposed to say? What book do I use? What do I cover in this course?’”  


Handshake Illustration.

Since students are able to ask their own questions on Packback, Dr. Combes was able to see what topics students were interested in and what ideas they were struggling with.


Hands holding heart illustration

Students found themselves thinking more critically about the class materials because they were able to discuss concepts with their classmates on Packback and share how it related to other courses.


Raised hands illustration.

Dr. Combes found that incorporating in-class activities and online discussion through Packback to be beneficial in engaging all the students in her large lecture of more than 400 students.

Engaging Students in Large Lectures with Class Activities

Dr. Combes organized a set of lecture notes, picked a book and was ready to tackle teaching an auditorium full of students. But Dr. Combes wasn’t finished preparing. She wanted to move beyond simply presenting lecture slides and preparing students for tests. She wanted students to understand how Animal Behavior impacted the world. Dr.Combes decided to add in-class activities to encourage students to take ownership of their learning and further explore the subject. 

Dr. Combes incorporated two activities to promote critical thinking and analysis of the class materials. The first activity was an innovative round of rock-paper-scissors. This game was designed to help students make predictions about fighting strategies in game theory models. She also tried an experiment with different sized piles of candy to teach optimal foraging models.

Incorporating Discussion in a Large Lecture

The activities were a success, however, Dr. Combes still wasn’t sure how to structure a discussion in such a large course. 

“Any course that big with no discussion, it sucks. I had to fill that void where they don’t get to talk about the material or think about it much beyond studying and lecture,” says Dr. Combes. “[Incorporating discussion] is partly to get them to think beyond the material and be curious, [but] if you get the right dynamic going, one student in discussion will explain something to another and that’s always the best way to learn; if you can explain something to someone else.”

Dr. Combes discovered Packback and implemented the online discussion board as part of a participation grade. She required students to ask one question and respond to two each week. By providing students with an open-form to discuss Animal Behavior, Dr. Combes hoped students would apply what they learned in class to discussions that were of interest to them. And to Dr. Combes’ surprise, that’s exactly what students did.

Dr. Combes’ community was filled with a range of questions. She noticed students processing the material and relating Animal Behavior concepts to other courses. There were questions from psychology majors asking, “Can animals be depressed?” “Have animals ever taken their own lives intentionally?” and “Do animals experience mental illnesses like humans do?” Pre-agriculture and livestock management majors asked, “Do animals in slaughterhouse have a sense of imminent fate?” A few students even had a discussion about paleontology and wondered, “How paleontologists could learn about [a] dinosaur’s behavior just by looking at a fossil?”

“What I liked about [Packback] was that you could tell that students had certain interests. It was kind of cool that they could follow their own curiosity,” says Dr. Combes.

Students Respond to Using Packback

Jennifer Tsverov, a junior from Dr. Combes’ class found discussing concepts with her classmates to spark her interest in Animal Behavior. As a neurobiology major, Tsverov wasn’t expecting to enjoy learning about animals. However, she found the discussion with her peers to be an exciting way to engage with the content. “[Dr. Combes’ Animal Behavior class] ended up being my favorite class,” says Tsverov. “I definitely think [Packback] helped outside of what we were learning in class. I think [the material] stuck better than whatever I memorized in class because I went out of the way to learn everything about [the subject] to come up with a nice answer [for Packback].”

Lupita Amaton, an Animal Behavior major from the same class also enjoyed discussing material on Packback. With plans on attending vet school, Amaton used Packback to gain insight into the moral and ethical intersections between science and animals, such as the use of live animals in scientific studies. 

“I asked questions because I was curious what someone on the other side would say,” says Amaton. “Asking these questions helped me apply what I was learning in class to the real world because I wasn’t just thinking about the material in class anymore. I was still thinking about the material [after class], processing it and [not] just forgetting it once I walk out of lecture.”

Continuing to Encourage Discussion

With such a positive experience and seeing the potential for growth, Dr. Combes is excited to continue using Packback in future courses.

“I think [Packback] was really useful for me,” says Dr. Combes. “I really like teaching Animal Behavior, but we don’t have much we can do with 400 students. [Using Packback] is about making them curious and thinking about the material [and] it seems to me, looking at their questions, they really got into it. They were really asking things they were curious about. Particularly for classes I have now, they’re never really putting anything in their own words. They’re just reading information and trying to reassemble it. I think it’s nice [that on Packback] students are able to say things in their own words [and] really understand it.”