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Teaching Large Classes at UCSB

How to teach large classes effectively has long been of concern to UCSB faculty.

Faculty often express concern about class size negatively affecting the quality of teaching and instructor effectiveness. This is particularly important because most lower division classes at UCSB are over fifty students. Yet, students appear to be less concerned about class size than faculty. Over 80% of UCSB students surveyed by Office of Instructional Consultation in 1992 (1) felt that the instructor affected the quality of classes more than did class size. It may surprise many faculty to know that classes rated best by students tended to be a little larger than the worst rated classes!

In this same 1992 UCSB survey, students and faculty agreed that an important factor in student learning is the quality of teaching. More specifically, students often discriminate between best and worst classes on the basis of instructor effectiveness and the instructor's ability to make material interesting. Course relevance also contributes to student satisfaction.

When Does Class Size Make a Difference?

Studies on the effects of class size have been conducted since the 1920's. Results have often been mixed, with some methods of instruction favoring small classes and other methods being as or more effective in large classes. Large classes are as effective as small classes when the goals involve learning factual information and comprehending that information. When traditional achievement tests are used to measure learning, large classes compare well with smaller classes.

Smaller classes have been found more effective when instructional goals involve higher level cognitive skills including application, analysis, and synthesis. Smaller classes provide for greater contact between students and faculty, which appears to be most needed for students with low motivation, those with little knowledge of the subject matter, or those who have difficulty grasping conceptual material. Smaller classes are also more effective than large ones in affecting student attitudes. In sum, the optimal size of a class depends on the instructional goals being pursued. (2)

The main advantage smaller classes have over larger ones is that they provide students with greater opportunities for interaction with subject matter, with the professor and with one another. Here are some suggestions that seem to appear on nearly every list of large class "how to's."

Personalize, Personalize, Personalize : Learn and use the names of your students, even in a large class. As difficult as this is, it goes a long way toward personalizing the class. Faculty have successfully learned student names by having a seating chart, name badges, requiring students to attend office hours in small groups, taking pictures of the class (with student permission), arriving to class early and greeting students as they enter, and conversing with students in e-mail and discussion forums.

Include Active Learning Strategies : This can be done by using 2 minute pair discussion groups, and

  • asking students to share personal experiences related to course content
  • formalizing study groups
  • giving group assignments
  • using peer feedback groups or
  • computer software that allows for anonymous peer review of papers
  • having a fishbowl discussion group at the beginning of each class
  • asking students to write answers to discussion questions before class begins
  • requiring small group office hours, or
  • asking for one-minute papers at the end of class.

Student Response Systems, or Clickers, offer an immediate and effective means for eliciting and displaying the distribution of students' answers to key content questions.  Clickers can also be used to draw out your students' anonymous opinions and feedback on content, instructional methods or planning preferences.

Give feedback early and often : Students need to know how they're doing, particularly in a large class.

  • Give short, ungraded quizzes during that "dead time" as students are getting seated or at the beginning of class while you're dealing with the tedious but often necessary administriva.
  • Give short essay questions at the beginning or end of class, then begin the next class by reading one or two exemplary answers; this primes the class, gives feedback, and prepares students for taking exams.
  • Require outlines and drafts of term papers on specified dates, well before the final due date.
  • After every fifteen minutes of lecturing, ask students to discuss a thought question with the person next to them and have two or three students tell their response to the whole class.
  • After lecturing for half the class, ask students to write the most important themes you've mentioned; write your answers on the overhead and let them compare their lists with yours!

For more discussion on teaching large classes, see chapters 20 and 21 in Wilbert McKeachie's, Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher. The Office of Instructional Consultation (x2972) will provide faculty with a copy upon request.



1. Badgett, S., Johnson, R. and Nicholson, S. Assessing the Lower Division Experience: Surveys of Student and Faculty Opinion. Office of Instructional Consultation. University of California, Santa Barbara. February, 1992

2. McKeachie, W.J. et. al., 1994. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers. (9th edition). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

consultation contacts

George Michaelsexecutive director2130 Kerr Hall
lisa berrysenior instructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
mindy colininstructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
Mary Lou Ramos database and ESCI administrator1130 Kerr Hall
Aisha Wedlaw ESCI assistant1124 Kerr Hall
Breana Barakoffice manager 1130 Kerr Hall
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