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Motivating and Managing Large Classes

Rebecca Stein

Large classes at Penn are generally introductory survey courses taken by students with no prior knowledge of the subject. Students take these courses for various reasons: simple curiosity, fulfilling a general requirement or as the first step to completing a degree program. They accordingly have a wide range of interests and abilities. In addition, the instructor often has true expertise on only some of the topics covered. The size of the class in itself requires different methods of communicating and interacting with students. Some of us are natural orators who can effortlessly enthrall and motivate large audiences. The rest of us need to find tools that allow us to motivate and manage a large class. Here are a few techniques I have found that work in the introductory course I teach on microeconomics. Their goal is to make lectures more effective, to extend learning beyond lecture time and to allow the students to focus on study rather than course logistics.

Changing the Atmosphere in Class

A colleague once suggested to me that an instructor is like a coach who must inspire the team to greatness rather than telling the players which plays to run. An instructor is a facilitator of learning as well as a source of expertise.

In-Class Activities. Each semester I run a few “experiments” in class, such as a pit market to demonstrate the power of the invisible hand or a voluntary contribution game as an example of the free-rider problem. These are active rather than passive demonstrations; the students physically and verbally participate. These activities cut into lecture time, but they are not wasted time. An activity that allows students to “talk and listen, read, write, and reflect” (Meyers, C. and T.B. Jones. 1993. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p.6) facilitates their learning, and can even lead to better performance on exams (Stein R., Cohen, M. and Robbins L.M. “Evaluating In-Class Active Learning in a Principles of Microeconomics Course”). But the benefit goes beyond the specific model or example: students who step out of their note-taking role are taking responsibility for their own learning.

Connecting with Students. Relating the course material to the students’ own lives engages them. This is not always easy, although in economics we illustrate ideas with current news events and show students how their everyday choices are (sometimes!) predicted by economic models. Occasionally it pays to do something that at first impression may seem frivolous. For example, last spring I started to play songs on the loudspeaker as the students drift in and take their seats. The song relates to the topic at hand. The Rolling Stones’ song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” is a great introduction to the topic of scarcity. The Beatles’ song “Taxman” is quite a comment on tax burden. Does this make a difference? It certainly brings a smile to my face (and theirs!), which makes the lecture go better. The students comment favorably (or unfavorably) about my choices. Some make their own contributions (quite a few brought in “Supply and Demand” by the Hives).

Motivating Students to Study Outside of Class

Learning comes from practice and application. The lecture may present a method of thinking, but students who limit their coursework to attending lectures will lose an opportunity to learn.

Stretching Them Beyond the Lecture. In lecture, I frequently discuss an idea in a particular setting. I then mention extensions that the students should think about on their own. For example, I might ask them to think about minimum wages from the perspective of the ideas we developed for rent control or to think about what a model of taxes has to say about subsidies.

Motivating with Exams. We can use the grade consciousness of most Penn students to our advantage. Since they will devote serious effort to studying for exams, giving them frequently is a way to insure that the students keep up with the material. For the same reason, and because so many of my students are freshmen, I also give several short quizzes in class. Exams should be set at a logical point in the course to give students the opportunity to organize their thoughts. Since I want students to spend their energy on studying rather than on worrying, I am clear about the chapters covered, and each exam has a similar format.

Using Electronic Resources. Although the course web program Blackboard is not perfect, it does help instructors to connect with students outside class. I use it to post weekly homework and lecture outlines. I also direct students to electronic resources that are linked to the textbook: these provide opportunities for practice, and I especially recommend them for my weaker students.

Managing the Class

A well-organized course sets a calm and studious tone. Course management is itself a tool for teaching. Good management also allows us to balance our teaching with family and research.

Getting Organized. Do not underestimate the value of a well thought-out syllabus. When students receive a clear outline of each upcoming lecture topic, they know what to expect in class and how to prepare. Sometimes deviation is necessary, but with a lot of students involved a core structure must be in place. Similarly, organizing electronic files and student e-mails is important in order to refer to student requests and our responses that pile up over the course of a semester.

Communicating with TAs. I am fortunate to have recitations given by Teaching Assistants, but the recitations must be integrated into the course for the students to get the most out of them. I do this in several ways: 1) I discuss a list of duties in an introductory meeting with the TAs; 2) we hold weekly meetings throughout the semester; 3) I make sure at least one TA takes notes at each of my lectures and distributes them to the other TAs; 4) we meet (over pizza) after each exam. These periodic activities allow me to share with the TAs my expectations for the course in a timely way and to learn quickly from them of any difficulties they are having. I also sit (quietly) in a recitation every week. The TAs appreciate my feedback, and I find out whether the students are understanding the material. It is also important to let TAs know that they have my full support. If a conflict arises with a student, I am there to help.

Planning Outside Interactions. Most students do not want to interact with their professors outside of class—luckily for me since I have hundreds of students each semester! But I encourage those who wish to see me to do so. I come to the classroom early, and I hover in the hallway after class. I cannot give one-on-one tutoring, but I lead small review sessions before exams. Answering all student e-mail promptly is important for keeping communications open. (I do not,  however, check e-mail on weekends, and I let my students know this.) I also recommend going to lunch with your students (support is available through the President’s Fund for Student-Faculty Interaction). Spending an hour hosting students at the Faculty Club is a wonderful way to remember that they are fun and full of energy. There is more to college life than receiving—and assigning—grades.

In a course of any size I try to provide a variety of assignments and experiences that stimulate learning both inside and outside of the classroom. However, the strategies outlined here have helped me motivate large classes to participate actively in their own education.


Rebecca Stein is a senior lecturer in economics and director of introductory microeconomics, in the department of  economics, in SAS. This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays. If you would like to submit an article for this series, contact Larry Robbins, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, robbinsl@sas.upenn.edu.



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 21, February 15, 2005


February 15, 2005
Volume 51 Number 21


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