Alessandra C. Martini, Ph.D, UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders

There’s a unique set of challenges that can reduce student learning and exhaust faculty members teaching large-enrollment courses. Among so many people, it is easy for students to feel anonymous, disengage, and obtain a less favorable grade. Within this environment, instructors need to be especially prepared for the term and each class period as some actions might require extra planning. However, with dedicated and careful attention, even classes with hundreds of students can have interactive segments that will increase engagement.  Additionally, strategies to increase student participation require more energy. Fortunately, pedagogical technologies have advanced and at the present time offer the potential to ease the workload that faces instructors.

Making a large class small

Some tips to make a large classroom look like a small class include:

  • asking a student’s name when they answer a question
  • having some small talk not related to class material
  • entering their space by walking around the classroom
  • making yourself more accessible to students

These are just a few examples of simple actions that will ease the environment for both instructor and student, making the learning space less intimidating.

Team-based learning

Instructors are usually faced with the idea that large classes require a lecture and that there is no space for active learning techniques. However, with some planning, active strategies used for small classes can be adapted for large ones. For example, iClickers can be very helpful since the students can work in pairs or small groups. In this context, team-based learning (TBL) is one good example of a structured form of small group learning that can be scaled up and delivered in large classes. To this end, TBL has become widely and successfully practiced in medical schools, where its use is typically limited to certain courses or parts of courses. However, this instructional approach can be adapted across many disciplines. Here are the three phases that constitute TBL:

  • Phase 1: individual learning, before class, through journal articles or videos. Phases 2 and 3 occur in class, where teams composed of 5 – 7 individuals remain fixed for a long period.
  • Phase 2: assessment of readiness assurance, usually through an individual closed-book test, to make sure that students have acquired the necessary understanding of the subject studied and to provide clarifications as needed. Then, the assigned teams repeat the same closed book test.
  • Phase 3: team-based learning, where teams solve clinical problems or cases aiming to apply what they learned in the previous stages.

An important aspect of this approach is the facilitation of discussion and management of the classroom, which are critical in larger classes. Finally, instructors need to be aware and comfortable with giving up some control over events in the classroom or working in a noisy environment. In summary, TBL and other active learning techniques are effective ways to engage students, foster critical thinking, and support learning outcomes.


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Klegeris A, & Hurren H (2011) Impact of problem-based learning in a large classroom setting: student perception and problem-solving skills. Advances in physiology education, 35(4), 408-415.

Nierenberg DW. (1998) The challenge of “teaching” large groups of learners: strategies to increase active participation and learning. Int J Psychiatry Med. 28(1):115-22.

Rajalingam P, et al. (2018) Implementation of team-based learning on a large scale: Three factors to keep in mind. Med Teach 40(6):582-588.

Singh N, et al. (2018) Multistation exercises: a combination of problem-based learning and team-based learning instructional design for large-enrollment classes. Adc Physiol Educ. 1;42(3):424-428.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 24th, 2019.

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