Building Connections in Large Lectures

It is no secret that class sizes in public and private institutions across the country are growing. 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. These challenges include lower student engagement, increased grading burden and difficulty building relationships with students.

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 building connections in large lectures. In small classes, she had time to build relationships with her students. And students were comfortable discussing class topics, debating ideas and asking questions. At the University of California, Davis, she wanted to build student connections in large lectures but knew creating a comfortable environment for hundreds of students would be challenging.

Dr. Combes’ challenge isn’t unique. Instructors across the country must develop a classroom that is engaging, teaches core subject matter knowledge and leaves students 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. One way to overcome these challenges is by creating a collaborative environment where students feel empowered to take ownership of their education.

Professor giving presentation in lecture hall at university. Participants listening to lecture and making notes.

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. Instructors who have an understanding of student interests can better develop assignments, lectures and classroom expectations.

While instructor-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. This confidence is 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 in Large Lectures

Instructors don’t need to have individual relationships to create an environment where students engage and take ownership of their learning. Here are some ways to build a sense of community in any class.

Encourage discussion

Whether in class or online, discussions are an excellent way for students to share their thoughts and interact with peers. Discussions also keep students engaged in class materials and push them to think and analyze information critically. For building connections in large lectures, try using an AI-powered online discussion board such as Packback. This online discussion board helps instructors scale feedback to the entire class. Instructors can give public praise, set high expectations for students and 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 instructor can’t monitor the discussion. 

Interview students

Conducting class surveys helps instructors understand what topics students find interesting, why they’ve decided to take the class, and what they are hoping to learn. With this information, instructors 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.

Allow students to explore their interests

Try assigning work that enables 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 of eating habits. Even if an instructor can’t look at each student’s assignment, browsing a sample can help identify student interests. This sample can be used to tailor class examples and lecture topics. Instructors 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, but they’ll also build camaraderie by learning about their peers’ interests. 

Encourage students to attend office hours

Office hours are an excellent time for students to get clarification on class topics. Still, it’s also an excellent time for instructors to listen to students. When instructors listen, they’ll get a better understanding of how students feel about class, what interests them, and where they are struggling. Chances are, only a portion of students will come to office hours. However, interactions with the few students can scale to reach the entire class. This can be done by identifying trends in student comments and addressing recurring questions to the whole class. 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 them. 

Set expectations and be transparent

Students may not be aware of the day-to-day tasks of instructors. They may become frustrated if an email goes unanswered or an assignment isn’t graded as thoroughly as they had hoped. Take time to share with classroom goals 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 instructors 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 how Dr. Stacey Combes built student connections at UC-Davis and eventually spent less time grading and moderating discussions in her large lecture? Read her case study to find out!

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