Better Communication in Large Courses

When it comes to selecting climates conducive to learning, most faculty members would probably not choose large courses. There are certain aspects of those environments that make them less than ideal for quality instruction.

However, the current economic state of affairs at most colleges and universities will probably mean there will be more large courses with even bigger enrollments. Instructors who teach large class sections can improve communication within the classroom through the following strategies developed in a series of faculty workshops at Pennsylvania State University.

Make the space "small."
A space is made to feel small by treating it as if it were. This can mean that the instructor might occasionally move to locations that are closer to students and, there-fore, more comfortable for communication. Distances also feel smaller when instructors distribute handouts, perhaps with the help of other students, or come to class early to talk with students in various corners of the room. The point of these maneuvers is to communicate to students that the space need not be intimidating. If instructors are comfortable in a variety of locations, students will find the size of the room less imposing.

Create a supportive climate.
Supportive climates validate the presence of individuals, thus reducing defensiveness and encouraging participation and involvement. Learning students names is one way to recognize them as individuals. But other methods include:

  1. Making personal comments on student papers and exams, (i.e., notes of commendation on high-scoring papers or on those of students whose exam scores show dramatic improvement).
  2. Personally complimenting every student who receives an A on a paper or exam.
  3. Recognizing as many students as possible by name in class. The recognition of some students has benefits that spill over to all students.
  4. Get students involved in the communication process.

The variety of ways that faculty enhance student participation in a large class setting include:

  • Encouraging students to submit written questions from which the instructor can choose the most relevant for response.

  • Identifying participant areas. This may be the lower left quadrant one period and the upper right another period. At an appropriate point in the lecture, the instructor may engage one quadrant of 20 or more students in discussion.

  • Giving class members a handout that lists each period and a group of students who can expect to be involved in discussion. The advance warning enables them to prepare.

  • Get personal.

Students--especially students in large classrooms--need to know that the person in charge is indeed a person. That is not to say instructors should disclose highly personal information in a classroom situation. But completely withholding any expression of self is equally unwarranted, particularly in a class setting which works against the development of any type of personal relationship between student and professor.

There are a multitude of small but significant ways professors can communicate as persons without relinquishing control of the class or revealing private information that can be used against them. The ways ought to be explored, especially in large courses.

There is no question that large courses present sizeable communication challenges. Nevertheless, strategies can be developed which will respond to and deal with a number of difficult environmental conditions with one caveat. The techniques suggested take time and effort. The question then becomes, do the results these techniques achieve justify the expense of time and energy? It is a question for individual instructors to answer.