Published: Oct. 28, 2021 By

Over the last year, I have noticed that one of the most frequent questions in Center for Teaching & Learning workshops is, “How would you adapt this practice for use in a large class?” The suggestions in this post are focused on building communication channels such that one could get a sense of how to provide equity-minded, and therefore differentiated support, for students who are learning in a large classroom.

In an article on inclusive teaching, Bryan Dewsbury and Cynthia Brame define inclusivity as “the practice of including people across differences” and assert that inclusivity implies “an intentional practice of recognizing and working to mitigate biases that lead to marginalization or exclusion of some people”. In order to create inclusive classroom spaces, they argue that an ongoing dialogue with students is required, and as such, inclusion is built on the quality of the social relationship. The challenge of inclusive teaching is to find ways to be responsive to the students who are currently enrolled in your course, instead of implementing the same teaching practices each semester.

Perhaps we might define large lecture classes by the limit for which an instructor cannot truly know all the students’ names and hear unique stories about each students’ learning experience. This semester, I have found that masks have added significant challenges for learning students’ names and encouraging participation. I would argue that the class enrollment that might qualify as a large lecture class would be even smaller, given these extra challenges.

While you can’t expect to form relationships with all of your students in a large class, you can open the door for communication about access and learning needs in order to create an equitable and inclusive environment. Once the communication channels are established and utilized, relationships can flourish. The following suggestions for establishing the formation of these relationships are organized by what the instructor can do and how an instructional team can provide vital support. 

Suggestions for the Instructor:
Instructor Presence

When I was an undergraduate, my roommate convinced me to attend a talk by Dr. Maya Angelou. There were at least 150 people in the room. I don’t remember what Dr. Angelou spoke about, but I do remember feeling like I could have comfortably walked up to her to ask a question. It was clear to me that she had respect for her audience, that she valued the relationship with her audience and that she was curious about our experiences. While I will never be as captivating as Dr. Angelou, I do aim to bring those qualities to my presence as an instructor. One way to establish your instructor presence is to write a paragraph in your syllabus that clarifies your values regarding teaching and learning. You could also include a statement that welcomes students and all of their identities, visible and invisible, into your classroom. 

I have heard from many students that they feel discouraged at casual comments that they hear from instructors in large lectures such as, ”You should already know this” or “This should be easy, since it was covered in the previous course.” Kimberly Tanner calls this “Non-content Instructor Talk”. Instructors might also be making microaggressive comments that further marginalize students who do not fit into the dominant culture. Given that relationships are harder to foster in this environment, it is crucial to be aware of what comments might be creating a hostile or unwelcoming experience for students. Two resources that might be helpful to work on self-awareness are Verna Myer’s Ted talk on addressing our biases and the Center for Teaching & Learning webpage on Stereotype threat.

Classroom Agreements

As you will be relying on students to form relationships with their peers and your instructional team, it is critical to communicate classroom agreements regarding student behavior during group work. The Inclusive Community of Practice used several resources to generate a list of community agreements for breakout rooms and group dialogues this semester. As the facilitator of these sessions, I include the community agreements on each of our activity documents as a frequent reminder of expected behavior. A survey that remains open all semester could be used to allow for students to report situations in which agreements were broken. 

Curating Your Content

It is important to carefully curate the content of your course to make it relevant and accessible to all students. Talk to your students about your choices and emphasize the importance of exploring different perspectives. When students can connect their lived experiences and values to what they are learning, it will increase motivation and engagement. Two resources to start this process of review are the Center for Teaching & Learning webpage on  Black Lives Matter and the Digital Accessibility Office newsletter.

Lecture Activities

Getting connected as a class through a "warm-up" period or "temperature check" in the first few minutes provides an informal moment or two to allow all students to feel seen and heard. You could ask a quick polling question, using iClickers or Mentimeter, to get a read on their energy level or how confident they are feeling about the current course topic. Using the methodology of “Think-pair-share” is a great way to check for understanding and allow students to work with their peers. Don’t forget the “think” part of this activity! Many students are grateful for moments of quiet to think and process during class. You can also use a pause during class to get written questions from students through a backchannel, managed by a TA or peer (more information on backchannels below!). Also, take time during class to coach students on how to best learn in a large lecture course. You might also use that same polling feature to have students share their best learning strategies for your class.

Frequent Feedback

Getting frequent feedback from your students allows you to make adjustments during the semester. In a large classroom, surveys may have a majority of multiple choice questions to see broad patterns. Start the semester with an accessibility survey and consider designing a mid-semester feedback survey as well.  Be transparent that you are shifting your practices due to student feedback, illustrating your responsiveness. You might enjoy this recent article, which suggests the use of reflective questioning and Universal Design for Learning for large classes. Lastly, many of us enjoyed seeing more student participation in the chat when teaching with Zoom. It can be an invaluable tool for students with social anxiety, processing disabilities or introverted learning styles. Creating a backchannel for your class allows students to submit written participation, ask logistical questions about due dates and report attendance issues. Just today, a CU professor told me that they are using Microsoft Teams as a backchannel, because it requires students to log in with their CU ID, offering more privacy and security.  

Suggestions for Building the Instructional Team:
Graduate Student Teaching Assistants

Consistency across the different learning spaces in a course can help students feel a sense of belonging. Encourage your teaching assistants (TAs) to use your classroom agreements when working with students, and to report if they see disrespectful behavior between students. Ask them to support the backchannel of communication, by adding messages of encouragement or additional support for challenging content. You might ask your TAs to reach out to students who are not performing well in the course.

Peer-to-peer Relationships

The Learning Assistant (LA) program is currently hiring undergraduate students for their program. LAs can be powerful relationship builders in large lecture classes. Empower them to be “metacognition coaches”, talking with students about their strategies to be successful when they were taking your class. They can role model for students what to do when you don’t know the answer. I have found that students can be more open with LAs, revealing their challenges in the course and asking for help. They can also be accountability partners to uphold classroom agreements. If you don’t have the ability to hire LAs for your course, you might read through this article on creating peer study groups in large lecture courses..

As you are working with these inclusive teaching practices, allow yourself some time to build strong skills and effective delivery. Equity-minded teaching involves constant iteration, as our students’ lived experiences and needs will continue to change. Reach out to me, if you would like to discuss this article or add some practices that are working for you!