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Beating The Numbers Game: Effective Teaching In Large Classes

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.89.1 - 2.89.5



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Paper Authors

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Richard M. Felder

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1213


Phil Wankat wrote somewhere—and I agree—that anything you can do in a large class you can do better in a small one. When we find ourselves teaching a mob, it’s easy to throw up our hands, conclude that there’s no chance of getting any responsiveness out of 150 or 300 students in an auditorium, and spend 45 hours showing transparencies to the listless 60% who bother to show up from day to day. We can generate some interest by bringing demonstrations to class, but there are only so many hydrogen balloons we can explode and even they lose their impact after a while.

Fortunately, there are ways to make large classes almost as effective as their smaller counterparts. Without turning yourself inside out, you can get students actively involved, help them develop a sense of community, and give frequent homework assignments without killing yourself (or your teaching assistants) with impossible grading loads. Following are some ideas for doing all that.

In-Class Exercises

Lectures as a rule have little educational value. People learn by doing, not by watching and listening. If you’re teaching a small class and you’re good, you may be able to prod many of your students into activity—get them asking and answering questions, discussing issues, challenging conclusions, laughing at your jokes, whatever. No matter how good you are, though, you probably won’t be able to persuade most students to open their mouths in front of 120 classmates—it feels too risky for them. If you hope to move away from the wax museum-like aspect of most large lectures, you’ll have to try a different approach.

A technique you can count on is the in-class exercise. As you lecture on a body of material or go through a problem solution, instead of just posing questions to the class as a whole and enduring the ensuing time-wasting silences, occasionally assign a task and give the students anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes to come up with a response. Anything can serve as a basis for these exercises, including the same questions you normally ask in lectures and perhaps some others that might not be part of your current repertoire.1 For example,

• Using terms a bright high school senior (a chemical engineering sophomore, your grandmother) could understand, briefly explain the concept of vapor pressure. • Why does it take much longer to prepare a hard-boiled egg at a ski resort than at the beach? • Estimate the rate of heat input to a kettle on a stove.2

Felder, R. M. (1997, June), Beating The Numbers Game: Effective Teaching In Large Classes Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6433

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