Active Learning in Large Classes

Even in large classes, instructors can create an active learning environment where human connections are made.

Here are some strategies for doing so:


Think-Pair-Share is especially well suited for large classes because groups of two are easy to manage.

  • Ask students to think independently about a question you pose, and to write briefly or make some notes about it.
  • Pair students together to discuss and expand on their initial thoughts and ideas.
  • Ask several pairs to share with the whole class – do not try to get through the whole class.

Peer Instruction

Eric Mazur, educational innovator and physicist, developed Peer Instruction (PI) to enable learning in large lecture classrooms. As he explains, “Peer Instruction . . . involves students in their own learning during lecture and focuses their attention on underlying concepts. Lectures are interspersed with conceptual questions, called ConcepTests, designed to expose common difficulties in understanding the material. The students are given one to two minutes to think about the question and formulate their own answers; they then spend two to three minutes discussing their answers in groups of three to four, attempting to reach consensus on the correct answer. This process forces the students to think through the arguments being developed, and enables them (as well as the instructor) to assess their understanding of the concepts even before they leave the classroom.” PI invites students to participate and invest in their learning.


Polling software (Padlet, Polleverywhere, Mentimeter,, and Kahoot!) is easy to use and adaptable to phones, laptops, or tablets. These tools offer anonymity and instant feedback on what students know, believe, or think about a topic, and are great for active, engaged learning and prompting discussions.

Mazur proposes this effective method of polling. Instructors:

  • Ask questions
  • Have students think
  • Poll students
  • Have students discuss what they thought
  • Repoll students
  • Explain

Supplemental Instruction

Supplemental instruction (SI) is an academic support program using peer-led study sessions that targets traditionally difficult courses. The Center for Academic Success and Tutoring (CAST) has a fantastic and growing supplemental instruction program. Get in touch with CAST leaders to see what can be set up.

Team-Based Learning (TBL)

Team-based learning is a process for structuring large classes for engagement, active learning, and high degrees of student participation and satisfaction. It uses pre-structured small groups and highly organized content-activities and assessments to keep students active and engaged for learning.

Team-Based Learning from Faculty Innovation Center on Vimeo (examples of TBL in practice).

Introduction to Team-Based Learning [links to PDF] from the University of British Columbia.

For information on how to implement TBL, use this link to the step by step process with examples and supplemental materials.

Full Class Discussion

Although this task may seem daunting, Jessica Henry, Professor of Justice Studies, provides advice for managing full-class discussion effectively.

Jessica Henry on full-class discussion.

Teaching Large Classes Online
  • Combine consistency and variety by structuring class sessions similarly and employing varied activities during the session.
    • Segment class into blocks with different modes or activities.
    • Include “doing” activities in every class session:
      • discussing
      • writing collaboratively
      • writing individually.
    • Build in a stretch, snack, or bathroom break.
  • Break up large online classes by splitting off students to work either synchronously or asynchronously on exam prep, hold small group conferences and study groups, or invite Happy Half-Hour discussions where students can select topics (even non-course related) for discussion.
  • Schedule any asynchronous blocks in the middle of class, not at the ends.
  • Avoid putting everything as a Canvas assignment because this leads to overwhelmingly long lists and the perception that the course is overloaded.
  • Seek student input on activities with a survey after the first week.
  • Build in an asynchronous day to mitigate Zoom fatigue.
  • Implement collaborative learning techniques for discussions, activities, and assignments.

In this video, Katherine Herbert, Associate Professor, College of Science and Mathematics, offers strategies for managing effective online discussions:

Katherine Herbert on effective online discussion.

Flipped Learning

Teaching Strategies for Large Classes Reference Sheet (quick reference guide; opens as PDF).

Resources and References

Strategies for Large Classes

Tony Spanakos and Josh Galster “Teaching Strategies for Large Classes: from Political Science to Earth and Environmental Science” Strategies for Large Classes – PowerPoint Doc

Lessons Learned from Teaching Large Classes (tips sheet with discussion, opens as PDF)

Structuring Large Course

Eddy, S.L. & Hogan, K.A. (2014) “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 13, No. 3.

Assessment and Grading

Glazer, N. “Formative Plus Summative Assessment in Large Undergraduate Courses: Why Both?” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 2014, Volume 26, Number 2, 276-286.

Small-Group Learning in Large Classes

Jenay R., Lewis, S.E., Oueini, R. and Mapugay, A. “Coordinated Implementation and Evaluation of Flipped Classes and Peer-Led Team Learning in General Chemistry.” Journal of Chemical Education, 2016 93 (12), 1993-1998.
Sibley, J. & Ostafichuk, P. (2014).

Stone, M.E. & Jacobs, G. (Summer 2006) Supplemental Instruction: New visions for empowering student learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Engagement and Discussion in Large Courses

Cohen, D. (Jan. 2017) Class size matters. Inside Higher Ed.

Young, J.R. (Oct. 2017) When teaching large classes, professors shouldn’t try to put on a show. EdSurge.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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