Center for Teaching Excellence




The Common Good

CTE_logo_web.jpgA teaching and learning newsletter

Produced by the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Student Committee on Teaching Excellence (SCTE), with input from the students of SUNY Plattsburgh. Vol. 3, issue 2. Read other issues


Student Survey Question

What kinds of issues do you face with taking large classes, and what teaching techniques do you find most effective in those classes?

While it would be nice always to have classes that have fewer than 30 students, large classes (40+ students) will always be a feature of a public institution – made even more commonplace by the current economic climate. The challenges we face in teaching in teaching large classes are directly translated to the students’ learning experiences: they feel unidentified, adrift, less empowered to engage, and compromised by our reduced ability to deliver feedback in a timely way. Students say that in large classes it is easy to lose focus, to daydream or check out – and that other students can become a distraction with their talking and texting. Interestingly, students also report a sense of instructors in large classes “dumbing down” the material and not offering the same kind of intellectual challenge. Overall, it is so much more likely for the classroom dynamic that we all value to be muted in a large class. Here are some suggestions for improving the learning environment in a large class:

  • Raise the bar. You’re not the only one who doesn’t like to water down the subject. All of our student opinion surveys and focus group results indicate that our students want to be intellectually stimulated. (If you recall, that was also a student criticism of General Education classes.) Don’t let a few noisy wild cards determine your overall perception of what the students want – and can handle.
  • Find ways to punctuate lectures with student activities – learning  is something one must do for oneself, and whatever you can set up to encourage student action for learning will alleviate the numbness that comes from passivity. Here’s a link to the University of Maryland’s CTE site that provides some good advice on teaching large classes:  Here is a link to University of Arkansas, though there are some dead links, there are also some gems in here for sites on how to incorporate student-centered teaching practices in large classes:
  • Practical concerns for designing assignments that can be assessed effectively and efficiently can be addressed by involving students more in the processes of assessment (which also contributes to the formation of learning). Writing assignments can be designed that incorporate online, in class or after class workshops, and group work that is purely formative without grading attached can provide both a break from the traditional lecture and a means for students to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Whatever can be done to strengthen the class as a community of learning will be a great asset to an instructor in large classes. It is worth to take five or ten minutes in each class to talk with the students and create connections that foster trust and accountability. It may seem like you are sacrificing instruction time, but if that investment increases attention and engagement, you have sacrificed nothing and gained so much.
  • The fundamental characteristic of an instructor who succeeds in teaching large classes well is enthusiasm. We’ve seen this come up repeatedly in the various issues treated in this newsletter, which affirms that the power of teaching lies not in technique, but in the person who wields it.

In their words:

“I find that there are fewer connections made between teachers and students. Also, I feel like I cannot be pushed to the best of my ability.” Olivia Oxley

“Teachers in large classes don’t take the time to get to know each of their students. It makes it harder for students to get help when they need it because it is more difficult to talk to a stranger.” Carly Gagne

“I find that good teaching is usually marked by enthusiasm about the subject no matter the class size.” Matt Hewson

“I think that it is harder to learn in large classes. I really like when a teacher thinks of interesting ways to teach, rather than just sitting up front reading off the material.” Melissa Childs

Students on Large Classes:

What gets rave reviews:

  • Instructors who make an effort to know their students
  • Mixing up lectures with class activities and discussions
  • Displaying energy and enthusiasm for the subject and for teaching

What doesn’t:

  • Long, uninterrupted lectures
  • Daily PowerPoints that offer no student engagement

The February Teacher of the Month

Richard Schaefer, Ph.D. assistant professor, History. Richard provides us with a good model for teaching large classes because, as the comments indicate below, he creates a tempo that carries the class along the learning path.  His students tell us that he tries to engage them in creative ways, and that his passion for his subject is the driving force behind those efforts. Richard’s comments about his approach to teaching reveal a disposition towards students that respects who they are not just as thinkers, but as people in a world of context. He says, “Teaching is … less about instruction than about cultivating a sense for what we don't know. There is nothing I enjoy more than walking into class and having students challenge me by raising tough questions about what I am teaching. That is the real fun in teaching, continuing to look at the world through students' eyes."

Excerpts from nominating submissions:

  • “Goes above and beyond to involve students in class, teaches the subject and makes history interesting.” Ben Foote
  • “He does a great job teaching the material. He really takes time to help the students and presents the information in a way that helps the students understand. He’s a great teacher!” Melissa Childs
  • “Dr. Schaefer is not just a one-dimensional teacher; he teaches in a wide variety of ways. Any day there can be a lecture, seminar, or group work.” Matt Burns

Richard will receive his CTE Teacher of the Month mug just as soon as the weather is nice enough for me to walk it over to Champlain Valley Hall.

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100