Building Connections in Large Lectures

It is no secret that class sizes in public and private institutions across the country are growing. In fact, teaching a large lecture or non-traditional classroom is often required to advance along a tenure-track or to earn a promotion. And the rapidly changing classroom structure isn’t slowing down. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2016, undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 28 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.9 million students). Increasing class sizes bring challenges to educators, such as lower student engagement, an increased grading burden, more questions from students and often teaching methods which worked in smaller classes don’t scale to a larger class.

When Dr. Stacey Combes transitioned from a class of 20 students at Harvard University to a class of 400 students at the University of California, Davis, she quickly learned the challenges of connecting with students in an auditorium. In a small class, she had time to build relationships with her students and students were comfortable discussing class topics, debating ideas and asking questions in class. At the University of California, Davis, she wanted to build that same sense of community but knew creating an environment where hundreds of students were excited to share ideas would be challenging.

Dr. Combes’ challenge isn’t unique. More and more professors across the country are tasked with developing a classroom that is engaging for students, teaches core subject matter knowledge and leaves the student with a positive experience. It’s nearly impossible to speak with each student and many students feel uncomfortable sharing their questions or ideas in front of their peers. Often, the same students speak up in class discussions and it becomes hard to know where students are on the class material. One way to overcome these challenges is to focus on creating a collaborative environment where students feel empowered to take ownership of their education.  

The Power of Connection 

According to the journal article “Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement” students with supportive interpersonal relationships in school have more positive attitudes toward learning and are more academically engaged. The article also explains that engaged students often have higher levels of academic success and a better overall learning experience.  And it’s not just students who benefit from these relationships. Professors who have an understanding of student interests and needs can better develop assignments, lectures and classroom expectations.

While professor-student relationships are great for creating a comfortable environment in small classes, 1:1 relationships are not always manageable in large lectures. Instead of worrying about making time for every student, encourage students to interact with each other. According to the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, students with strong peer-to-peer relationships or peer mentors reported feeling significantly more active in school and more confident in their studies because they feel comfortable turning to their peers for academic support. Plus, when students explain concepts to their peers, it reinforces the material and promotes active learning through discussion.

Building Student Connections

Professors don’t need to have individual relationships with each student in order to create a comfortable environment where students feel excited to engage in class and take ownership of their learning. Here are some ways to build a sense of community in any sized class.

  • Encourage discussions. Whether in class or online, discussions are a great way for students to share their thoughts and interact with peers. Discussions also keep students engaged in class materials and push them to critically think and analyze information. Having an entire class participate in an in-class discussion can be challenging as students may be shy and unwilling to share ideas in front of their peers. For large classes, try using an AI-powered online discussion board such as Packback. This online discussion board helps professors build connections by scaling feedback to the entire class. Professors can give public praise which will be seen by the entire class, sets great expectations for students and allows the professor to be present in the discussion. The platform also provides students with real-time feedback as they are writing, so each student gets personalized coaching even when the professor doesn’t have the time to monitor the discussion.

  • Interview students. Conducting class surveys helps professors understand what topics students find interesting, why they’ve decided to take the class and what they are hoping to learn. With this information, professors can curate content to appeal to students in that class. For larger classes, try creating an electronic poll where students can submit answers to multiple choice questions and the results can be displayed in a graph for easy analysis.

  • Assign work that allows students to explore their interests. Try assigning work that allows students to share their experiences and explore their interests. These types of assignments help students understand how what they’re learning connects to their lives. Dr. Kathleen West noticed that by encouraging her students to explore their interests through class assignments, students became more engaged and interested in the content. Try having students write a personal essay, trace their genealogical history or investigate the effects that eating habits have on their lives.  Even if a professor isn’t able to personally look at each student’s assignment, browsing a sample can help professors identify student interests, which can be used to tailor class examples and lecture topics. Professors can even encourage students to review each other’s’ work to build peer-to-peer relationships. Not only will they be helping each other learn, they’ll also build camaraderie by learning about their peers’ interests.

  • Encourage students to attend office hours. Office hours are a great time for students to get clarification on class topics, but it’s also a great time for professors to listen to students and get a better understanding of how students feel about the class, what they find interesting and what they are struggling with. Chances are, only a small portion of students will come to office hours, but the interaction with the few students can be scaled to reach the entire class. This can be done by identifying trends in student comments and addressing recurring questions to the whole class. Often if one student has a question, many others will too and when students know they aren’t alone in their questions, they will be more willing to ask questions in the future.

  • Set expectations and be transparent. Students may not be aware of the day-to-day tasks professors undertake and may become frustrated if an email isn’t answered quickly or an assignment isn’t graded as thoroughly as they had hoped. Take time to share with the entire class the goals of the classroom and set clear expectations for how and when the course will be run. As Cindi Rigsbee explains in the book Good Teaching In Action, “when students enter a classroom in which the teacher has prominently displayed the learning goals and agenda..students are more likely to focus on learning instead of finding ways to entertain themselves.” On the flip side, be understanding with students. Remind students that professors were students too and empathize with them if they’re feeling stressed or if they don’t understand an assignment.  

Teaching a large class can be intimidating, especially when students seem uninterested and distracted in class. But giving students a voice and fostering a sense of community helps keep them engaged, which ultimately helps achieve learning objectives. Interested in learning exactly how Dr. Stacey Combes built student connections at UC-Davis and ultimately spent less time grading and moderating discussions in her large lecture course? Read her case study to find out!

Want to see a live Packback community and learn how you can increase student engagement and critical thinking in your course?