How to teach large cohorts effectively - Key takeaways from LearnSci Webcasts

February 20, 2023

As reported by Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students enrolled in UK universities has increased by over 15% between 2016 and 2021. This means that a lot of educators are teaching larger cohorts of students than in previous years, and may have to adapt their teaching strategies as a result.

This week, on the final episode of the LearnSci Webcasts Season 1, we were joined by Dr Dino Spagnoli from the University of Western Australia, and Dr Ryan Mewis from Manchester Metropolitan University, to discuss strategies and issues surrounding teaching cohorts of a large size. 

How does having a large class affect student and educator experiences? 

Diversity of large cohorts means educators have to be flexible

Both Dino and Ryan mention how their larger cohorts are diverse in terms of the pathways that students have taken to get to university - whether that’s coming straight from school, after taking a few years out, or having completed a foundation year. This diversity can mean that it’s difficult to make sure every student is challenged and supported equally. Educators must be flexible as not all students will start with the same knowledge and experience.

A sense of belonging positively affects both educators and students

Being part of a large cohort can feel less connected as students aren’t as likely to have personal contact with lecturers. Breaking down these barriers and making sure students know you want them to be involved and engaged can help combat this.

Ryan and Dino highlight that strategies like learning students’ names in small groups can help: this increases their sense of belonging and can facilitate more interaction in lectures. Not only this, but students feel more comfortable coming to you for help. 

“When you go back to the lecture theater and you can you can ask someone directly or they speak to you and you call them by their first name, it really does help build that rapport with with them. And then other students get to see that sense of belonging as well.”
Dr Dino Spagnoli, University of Western Australia
“The problems that we foresee actually is that background of where the students come from in terms of their education diversity, in terms of making sure that some of the students are challenged whilst also teaching to the actual level to bring up some of the students to the right level.”
Dr Ryan Mewis, Manchester Metropolitan University

Top tips for teaching big classes

  1. Introduce interactivity into your classroom

Using polling tools like Kahoot or simply polling students with a show of hands, asking students questions and getting feedback while teaching is an easy way to connect with students in a large group. It also encourages and includes students who might not want to answer a question directly or get an answer wrong in front of the whole class.

  1. When teaching, keep track of a few students to gauge their reactions

In a big class it’s hard to keep track of whether all students are following the content, so keep an eye on a select few, and check whether they are understanding you. Ryan explains that he was inspired to do this by DJs who gather visual cues from a few members of the crowd when changing tracks. It can be useful to ask questions too, so that if students are confused you know which content to go over again. 

  1. Cater for flexibility

Lots of students will want to catch up or re-watch lectures, so appreciate having content readily available online. Ryan also highlighted that more and more students have to rely on work outside of university for income, and so must fit their studies around part or even full-time work schedules. It’s this diversity in a large cohort that highlights the importance of flexibility - educators should adapt their teaching strategies, making sure that everything that’s taught is captured and can be accessed online too.

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Resources and Links

Thank you to Ryan and Dino for joining us on this week’s webcast and sharing your experiences with our community. You can view the full webcast recording and the rest of Season 1 on our YouTube channel.

That’s Season 1 of LearnSci Webcasts wrapped - thanks for tuning in! If you’re keen to see a Season 2, let us know what topics you’re interested in by tweeting us @LearnSciHQ.