Hold Students’ Interest When Teaching Large Class Sections

Technology and personal connections bring life to the lecture hall.

May 10, 2016

Mike Tiller, DBA, an associate professor of accounting at Indiana University who typically teaches classes of around 50 students, describes the large-class scenario vividly: “For students, it’s like walking into a theater waiting for the show to begin. For faculty, it’s like facing a sea of faces.”

Teaching a large class poses unique challenges to faculty—the biggest of which, perhaps, is keeping everyone engaged. Large classes can also be more challenging to structure and assess than small ones, and can leave some students feeling isolated. We talked to some educators to learn their best strategies for overcoming these problems.

Getting beyond anonymity

One of the biggest problems faculty face is getting to know their students. Tiller acknowledges that it is very rare for college students to walk in to class and introduce themselves (“They like to remain anonymous,” he says). He breaks the ice by putting them in groups of six to eight people and having them tell one another about themselves—where they come from and where they are going. He then rotates the groups so students can meet more of their classmates.

Frank Buckless, Ph.D., professor and accounting department head at North Carolina State University, who routinely teaches classes of about 300 students, says that getting to know students is his “No. 1 challenge.” He makes an extra commitment of time to meet his students outside of class in groups of five. He invites them to meet him for coffee, especially the quieter ones or those who are underperforming. “I reach out to those doing poorly, to help them achieve their goals,” he says.

It also helps to be honest with your students, he says: “I tell them I make mistakes. I let them ask questions about me.”

David Verduzco, CPA, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, encourages students who may be struggling to stop by during his office hours so together they can chart out a specific course of action for improvement.

When it comes to teaching a class of 700 students, “it is impossible to know everyone’s names,” concedes Melissa Larson, CPA, an assistant teaching professor of accounting at Brigham Young University, “but I introduce myself or share something personal via email, and that elicits a personal response.”

She also has a policy that helps students get to know one another: When her students walk into class they have to introduce themselves to the person sitting in front of them, to their right, and behind them, each class period.

Verduzco, who teaches a foundational accounting class with 350 students, says it’s important to “try to make the class feel not as large.” He does so by going around and talking to students while they’re working on an exercise. “That gives students the more personal feel of a smaller class,” he says.

Improving engagement

Large classes are often required classes, which can mean that some students are only taking them because they have to—not because they’re interested in accounting.

Larson, who teaches an introductory accountancy course that is required for most business majors and is often a general education requirement, says her students are more engaged when they have more perspective on what accountants do. So, on the first day of class, she asks them to draw a picture of what comes to mind when they hear the word “accounting.” Many of the pictures reveal that students view accounting as dull, stressful, and difficult to master.

Larson then uses a document camera to display some of the pictures in class and discuss them. “Everyone enjoys seeing these pictures and it allows me to debunk some myths of the accounting profession and begin the challenge of changing their perspective on accounting,” she says in an email.

To drum up enthusiasm for his classes, Tiller eschews the traditional lecture, calling it a “form of torture.” Instead, he says, “we pick a theme and talk about it. Or I give them a problem to solve. We look at solutions and discuss them. It’s all very interactive and collaborative.”

Tiller does not stay on any activity for longer than 20 minutes. After that point, he says, “we move on to a new problem. We look at a video, or a live video feed.” 

He also never uses slideshows, saying: “That is like a lecture on a wall.”

Verduzco has recently added a document camera to his staples of charts, diagrams, pictures, and other visual aids. “It allows me to fill summary notes that I provide students at a reasonable speed for them to follow along,” he says.

To engage students Buckless even has his class form teams for a bit of competition on in-class assignments. If they score more than 98%, he says, they get to challenge him to do something. “They like to see me do pushups,” he says with a chuckle. 

Using technology

Technology comes in very handy when dealing with a large group of students. Buckless relies heavily on the open-source learning platform Moodle. “It helps me to know who is engaging and who is not,” he says. His students use Moodle to take graded and ungraded quizzes, watch videos of previous classes, complete exercises, and post questions to a forum for Buckless and his teaching assistants to answer.

Larson uses a flipped classroom model. She promotes active learning by having students learn basic accounting concepts online from Business Learning Software Inc., and then solve mini-cases and exercises in class using the information they have learned.

Assessing learning

Tiller, Larson, Buckless, and Verduzco all use classroom response systems, commonly called “clickers,” to assess their students’ learning in class. Larson and Buckless also use them to award participation credit.

Students in Buckless’s classes take each of their three semester exams individually. They then retake each test in randomly assigned groups of four. “This ensures immediate feedback from their peers. Average scores are 90-95% on the group retest,” says Buckless, adding that this system also teaches his students group dynamics. Students can earn bonus points on their individual exams based on their performance on the group tests. Buckless also offers problem sessions that students attend to earn back points.

Larson sums up the key ingredients for success as a teacher with a large class: Be “upbeat, positive, and very, very patient.”

Usha Sankar is a freelance writer and editor based in Cary, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien at academicnews@aicpa.org.

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