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Part I. Research on Teaching Big Classes


There are various studies that examine the relation between the class size and students’ performance. Summarizing the results can be difficult since each study considers a different definition of large classes, uses different kinds of research methods and differs in what researches mean by “better performance”.

Intuitively, there is an assumption that smaller classes are better learning environments, but providing empirical evidence for this assumption is more challenging. Much of the class size discussion has occurred in the elementary and secondary school settings. Fewer studies have assessed the influence of class size on the learning experience and outcomes in the postsecondary context. One of the issues with many of the analyses is "the difficulty in isolating class size from other factors which may affect student learning, including discipline, level of course, teaching methods, individual instructors, and student demographics, in order to draw clear correlations between class size and outcomes". Teaching approaches and class size are “almost inextricably intertwined” (McKeachie as cited in Kerr, 2011: 3).

This statement can be proved by the results of  a Teaching Large Classes Project (TEDI, 2003), conducted by The Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) of the University of Queensland in Australia. The project included a review of:

  • "current practices adopted in the teaching of large classes; 

  • issues that emerge in the teaching of large classes; 

  • strategies used to deal with the demands of teaching large classes; 

  • and institutional responses to the challenges involved" (in Kerr, 2011: 5). 

The review was followed by the second phase which included surveys of highly accomplished instructors and educational developers, and several national workshops. The authors pointed out two key ideas from the project: "first, that there are qualitative differences in the way good teaching practice is enacted in large classes: the number of students is not the critical factor, rather it is how good teaching principles are implemented. Secondly, the authors stress the implications of management of the course, particularly resource allocation" (in Kerr, 2011: 5).

In general, research on the relationship between class size and student performance showed conflicting results (Toth and Montagna as cited in Carpenter, 2006). The results of some studies show no significant relationship between class size and student performance (Hancock; Kennedy and Siegfried as cited in Carpenter, 2006), but at the same time the results of other studies are in favor of small classes (Gibbs, Lucas, and Simonite; Borden and Burton; Arias and Walker as cited in Carpenter, 2006). Results vary based on the criteria used to assess student performance, as well as the class size measure itself. When traditional achievement tests were used, small classes provided no advantage over large classes (Kennedy and Siegfried as cited in Carpenter, 2006). But if additional performance criteria were used (such as long-term retention, problem-solving skills), it turned out that small classes held an advantage (Gibbs et al.; Arias and Walker as cited in Carpenter, 2006).

Some researchers argue that large classes can provide richer human resources and greater opportunities for creativity and identify some advantages of teaching large classes. Xu Zhichang believes that more students mean more ideas, and that means more opinions and possibilities (in Wang and Zhang, 2011). Qi Li and Wang Jiana add three more advantages: "large classes can provide more opportunities for co-students’ interaction, foster an atmosphere of cooperation and encourage creativity and innovation" (in Wang and Zhang, 2011: 3). Therefore, a large class brings not only challenges but also opportunities for the teacher, as noted by Lewis and Woodward (in Wang and Zhang, 2011: 3).

A number of researchers found out that good instructional design is what improves students' performance in large classes (Summary of Research Findings on Impact of Class Size on Student Learning and Satisfaction, 2004).

Therefore, we can not stand that there is direct connection between the size of the class and students' achievement, but we can say that what is much more relevant is the methods and teachers' approaches.


Large group lectures have been viewed as problematic for a long time. Students say that they often just copy information without understanding (Chester and Francis, 2006). 

The traditional passive view of learning implies situations where material is delivered to students in a lecture-based format. In contrast, a more modern view of learning is constructivism, where students are supposed to be active in the learning process by participation in discussions and collaborative activities (Fosnot as cited in Carpenter, 2006). The results of recent studies connected with the effectiveness of teaching methods are in favor of constructivist, active learning methods. The findings of a study by de Caprariis, Barman and Magee suggest that "lecture leads to the ability to recall facts, but discussion produces higher level comprehension" (in Carpenter, 2006). Research on group-oriented discussion methods has shown that "team learning and student-led discussions not only produce favorable student performance outcomes, but also foster greater participation, self-confidence and leadership ability" (Perkins and Saris; Yoder and Hochevar as cited in Carpenter, 2006). Hunt, Haidet, Coverdale, and Richards studied student performance in team learning methods and found positive learning outcomes as compared to traditional lecture-based methods (in Carpenter, 2006). In contrast to these findings, a study by Barnes and Blevins suggests that "active, discussion-based methods are inferior to the traditional lecture-based method" (in Carpenter, 2006). A comparison of lecture combined with discussion versus active, cooperative learning methods by Morgan, Whorton, and Gunsalus showed that "the use of the lecture combined with discussion resulted in superior retention of material among students" (in Carpenter, 2006: 14).

A recent overview of approaches for supporting active learning particularly in large classes in the sciences is provided by Allen and Tanner (in Kerr, 2011). More specifically, results from a study set in large undergraduate physics classes (Deslauriers et al. as cited in Kerr, 2011: 5) demonstrated "increased student attendance, higher engagement and improved learning as a result of implementing research-based instruction relative to the traditional lecture method. The experimental instructional approach was based on the concept of deliberate practice and included elements such as pre-class reading assignments, pre-class reading quizzes, in-class clicker questions with student-student discussion, small-group active learning tasks, and targeted in-class instructor feedback".

"Improved learning and conceptual understanding were reported as a result of the introduction of increased student participation, cooperative problem solving, and frequent in-class assessment of understanding in a large upper-level lecture course in developmental biology (Knight and Wood as cited in Kerr, 2011), and evidence for the positive nature of a cooperative learning environment in a large introductory biology course was provided from student interviews and evaluations" (Ebert-May, Brewer and Allred as cited in Kerr, 2011: 5).

Here is an explanatory video about the constructivism learning theory and a slideshare about collaborative learning:




As a response to some of the challenges in teaching large classes, use of technology in large class settings has become widespread. The use of personal response systems (Clickers) in large classes has become a common intervention, having generally positive impacts on student engagement (Caldwell; Mayer et al.; Patry as cited in Kerr, 2011). An extensive bibliography on research on the effectiveness of clickers on student learning is provided by Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching. However, there are studies in which no essential difference in learning outcomes between technology enhanced instruction versus traditional methods were found (Green and Gentemann; Savage as cited in Kerr, 2011).

Blended learning formats which use a combination of face-to-face learning and varying levels of technology are being implemented to meet a number of large class issues. A number of case studies of blended learning models in large classes provide a discussion of implementation benefits and challenges (Day et al.; Oliver; Greyling et al.; Sana, Fenesi and Kim as cited in Kerr, 2011). Other studies explore the implementation of a specific technology to address a particular large class apect, such as student communication and interaction (Bezuidenhout; Day and Kumar as cited in Kerr, 2011).

Other tools used by teachers in large class settings are Twitter, wikis (Sample, 2011) and PowerPoint presentations (Basson, 2009). One technique which is considered to be useful instead traditional student presentations is Pecha Kucha (Sample, 2011).

This SlideShare presentation gives more ideas about use of technology for large group teaching:

Therefore, three problematic issues in the aspect of teaching large classes have been brought into foreground in this review of previous research. First, there is no definite answer on the question about the relationship between class size and student performance. Second, methods supporting active learning (such as collaborative learning and discussions in groups) should be reasonably implemented by the teacher in the context of a traditional lecture for achieving better results. Third, particular technological support can be provided to address specific large class issues.

Discuss & brainstorm