4 Tips for Making Large Lectures Engaging for College Students


What is the ideal college class size? Many professors would probably say somewhere between 20 and 30 students—it’s large enough to have dynamic discussions yet small enough to learn everyone’s name. However, many teachers in higher education find themselves staring down classes with ten times as many students or more! It’s no secret that colleges are increasingly turning toward the large lecture format in response to budget cuts and growing enrollment.

As NBC reported back in 2007, the University of Colorado offered one chemistry class so large that the final exam took place in the basketball arena. The same school had 33 courses with 400 students or more. And this is by no means an isolated phenomenon. When it comes to general education classes and core classes, large lectures are a way of life at universities across the country.

As a professor, you can only do so much to dictate class size. But you can optimize your lectures to be as engaging as possible, whether you’re teaching ancient British literature to a class of 100 students or Psychology 101 to a crowd of 1,000. Here are four helpful tips:

Break Up the Lecture

You may be eager to pack in as much information as possible, but charging full steam ahead means you risk losing your students along the way. Inserting a picture, video clip, critical thinking question or even a one-minute break every 15 minutes can help your students stay on track.

Expressiveness is Key

As the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University cites, students only manage to get 20 to 40 percent of a lecture’s main ideas in their notes. Part of this may be due to the sheer volume of information and the fact that humans can only write or type so fast.

But it may also mean that your key points are getting lost in the shuffle. The same source suggests that expressiveness can be important in attracting and keeping students’ interest over time.

Next time you’re at the front of the room, make an effort to exhibit high levels of expressiveness. Wave your arms. Raise your voice to denote important information. Move around the room, drawing students’ eyes to you as you go. Gesture as you would during a passionate conversation as a friend. The options are limitless!

Promote Active Learning

Passive learning is the kiss of death for large lectures. It’s too easy for students to blend in with the crowd and lose focus. As the professor, it’s up to you to engage your students with activities that force them to do more than sit back, relax and enjoy the show. The Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence offers a host of great ideas to promote active learning in group settings:

-Poll your class using classroom response technology to get useful feedback and keep your students involved in the lecture.

-Ask students to respond in writing to a question for one full minute at the beginning of class to get their creative juices flowing.

-Ask students to answer “why or why not?” questions with a partner or small group.

-Show a video clip and pause it halfway through. Ask students to make predictions before showing the end.

Make Yourself Available

Let’s face it, students may be intimidated by large class sizes and an instructor that seems so distant. Students are more likely to engage if they can connect to you—and the class—on a personal level.

Make an effort to learn all the names that you can. Arrive fifteen minutes before class and strike up conversations with the students near the front. Stick around after class or tell your students where they can meet you for office hours or to chat over coffee. Create an online space for your class to meet, swap questions and contact study partners. It’s important not to underestimate the social power of engagement when it comes to daunting class sizes.

Above all, try to make your large lecture feel familiar and tailored to your students’ needs. If they don’t feel like just a face in the crowd, they’ll likely perform better in your class and get more value from the time they invest. Simple improvements like asking them for input and lecturing passionately can boost engagement.