Taming Large Lectures

As UNCW’s student population continues to rise, so do classroom sizes. Where once the largest UNCW classroom only held 42 seats, professors now face full auditoriums with anywhere from 150 to 200 seats. As these classrooms grow, professors are expected to meet higher expectations and mounting responsibilities. With these new expectations and responsibilities come questions like, “How does a single teacher maintain control of so many students at once? How does a single teacher find a way to make each student feel important in a crowd of many? How does a single teacher motivate all 200 students to learn the subject matter at hand?” Dr. Kim Sawrey, from the psychology department and Dr. Tim Ballard, from the biology department, recently sat down with us to share some insightful tips on how they cope with teaching in large settings.

Ballard offered these wise words about crowd control “You are always in charge. This is not a democracy.” His method for keeping his class on track begins with course expectations that are clear and well-defined in his syllabus. Sawrey makes his students sign the syllabus at the beginning of each semester stating that they understand his policies and are aware of his expectations. Once the rules have been established, it is important for both Ballard and Sawrey to adhere to them. For instance, Ballard implemented a rule in his classes asserting that if a student would like to dispute an exam grade, they must provide a written argument, by the following class period, which includes text documentation verifying that the student was correct in his/her answer. If this rule was not in place, surely much time and energy would be lost in unproductive student-teacher battles.
large lecture hall
Because large classrooms tend to promote chit-chat and laughter among students, keeping these disruptions to a minimum is another task these men face daily. According to Ballard, one trick when dealing with this problem is to confront student disruptions head on. “Call the offender out in class. Point out that many students come to class to listen to the professor.”

Ballard and Sawrey agree on the importance of making each student in the room feel recognized and valued. To facilitate learning the names of his students, Ballard often will ask a student his/her name before responding to one of their questions in class and from there will continue to use their name throughout the conversation. Additionally, when a student sends him an e-mail, he will first look up their picture on Pipeline before replying, and when grading exams, he writes a personalized note to each student. Sawrey skirts the issue of memorizing names, which is hard for him, by connecting with his students at the beginning of class and engaging them in some informal conversation before starting his lecture. Also, if he recognizes one of his students outside of the classroom, he makes a point of saying “hello” and stopping to ask how they’re doing. Using these techniques allows each student to feel valued and helps to create a positive teacher-student relationship.

Whether in a large or small classroom, teachers everywhere can agree that their most important job as a teacher is to keep students interested and motivated on the subject matter. According to Sawrey, keeping his class motivated begins with keeping himself motivated. He insists that, “If you want students to care, if you want students to listen, show them that you care about the subject matter.” Sawrey states that after 15 years as a lecturer, he has gone over basic chunks of the same material 30-40 times by now making it sometimes difficult to remain excited about the information. In order to keep his lectures interesting and relevant, Sawrey reviews his notes in prior to class. “I don’t do a full blown rehearsal of the lecture before I give it, but I certainly do pour over ancient hand-written notes and make additional notes to myself. I often will try to think of a small, little way to improve part of a lecture, find something new and current to add in; but if I’m not enthusiastic, the students in a big room will literally just sit there and stare.” In order to meet the students’ needs outside of lecture, both Sawrey and Ballard use e-mail and Blackboard to send review sheets, answer student questions, post the course outline and provide class messages. Dr. Sawrey comments, “One of the things I thought we always were doing in these general introductory courses is socializing the students to the university. Some of the things I have them do is use their e-mail account to find assignments and talk to me to get them toward the communication system that is used by the university.


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