Degree In Sight

Manage the crowd

Teaching assistants and tenured professors alike have seen undergraduate class sizes balloon as universities face increasing enrollment and decreasing funding for instructors. A recent survey by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities found that more than half of public universities that have experienced budget cuts are increasing enrollment to cope and 20 percent are cutting down on professors.

The upside for grad students? More teaching opportunities, says Adam Sukonick, a psychology graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

"In just one semester, I saw the number of students in one class rise by about 40 percent," says Sukonick. "While more students is a challenge, it's nice to know I can help more people learn about psychology."

The opportunity to teach large classes, however, may feel like a mixed blessing when you walk into a lecture hall and a hundred pairs of eyes stare back at you. But don't fret. Smart instructors can keep students engaged even in enormous lectures — and avoid drowning in ungraded papers. Here are some tips for managing a large class without diminishing quality:

Start early

Putting in a few hours at the beginning of the semester to design a solid syllabus will save you time and frustration in the long run, says Michelle Clark, PsyD, an adjunct professor and counseling center counselor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. Enlist faculty to review your lesson plan and make sure that it clearly outlines assignment deadlines and class policies, cutting down on time-consuming make-up tests and late assignments.

"Taking a little time in the beginning to learn how to set up your class from someone with more experience can save a lot of time for you down the road," she says.

Your syllabus should also include a cell phone policy because students in large classes are more easily distracted, says Jessica G. Irons, PhD, who once had a student who answered his phone mid-class, interrupting her lecture and leaving her stunned at the front of the room. Irons, who teaches at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and received the 2007 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award, now docks an exam point when a student's phone disrupts her lecture. If she doesn't know the culprit, the entire class loses a point on the exam.

"This is clear from the beginning of the semester," says Irons. "And I don't have a problem with phones in class because of it."

Split 'em up

As classes grow, lively discussions often decline, says Jared Keeley, PhD, a professor at Mississippi State University who received the McKeachie Award in 2008. To keep classes engaged, Keeley often breaks students into groups to discuss a set of questions and then report back to the class.

Splitting classes into groups of three or four students is also a favorite tactic for Clark. She recommends giving groups precise goals, such as asking them to answer a question using an example from the reading or a specific research study. She also keeps discussions on track by walking around the classroom and checking in on the groups.

"When students in groups stay on track, they meaningfully contribute to the conversation without digressing into chats about their lives or other classes," she says.

Ask for help

Got a pile of tests to grade? Enlist fellow student-teachers or friends for some help, says Sukonick. Though you'll have to grade short-answer and essay responses yourself, "anyone can score multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions," he says. It can help decrease your workload, and group grading can be fast and fun, he says.

"We all grade the exams together, drink lots of coffee and talk about our classes and our own research," says Sukonick. "It really helps keep us engaged with each other during the busiest time of the semester."

You can also enlist the help of machines, says Richard Miller, PhD, a social psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and recipient of the 2009 Robert S. Daniel Teaching Excellence Award for a professor at a four-year college. With 30 years of teaching experience, Miller knows that Scantrons can save a lot of time and help engage the class in the process. For example, when students take a Tuesday exam, Miller has the multiple-choice sections scored the same day. He finishes grading any essays and adds feedback on Wednesday, and by Thursday he's ready to go over the exams in class, which allows students to ask questions and understand why they missed the answers they did.

The time Miller saves by using Scantrons also allows him to offer the students who dislike multiple-choice questions an alternative. If they feel that none of the choices fits the answer, they can turn their test over and provide a short essay explaining what they think the answer is, says Miller.

"This really helps alleviate some of the pressure students feel about multiple-choice tests," he says. "If their essay is convincing, they get the points."

Another way to cut down on grading time is to have students examine one another's quizzes immediately after taking them, says Holly B. Sweet, PhD, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. Have students write down their ID numbers instead of their names, and then shuffle the quizzes and hand them out for peer feedback. This not only saves time, but it also gives you the opportunity to go over the answers in class and help students understand why they missed certain questions. Giving students immediate feedback captures students' attention since even those who may not be captivated by the subject matter probably care about their grades.

"Try to engage your students," says Sweet, "because active students are always the best students."

Alter the assignments

Essays are a great way for students to learn to develop their own ideas around a topic, but they are time-consuming to grade. Consider replacing them with an engaging, challenging assignment, says Miller.

For example, in a cross-cultural psychology course, Miller asks students to create MySpace pages for a fictional person. The pages include answers to questions such as how they were raised and references to back up their biographies. Students enjoyed the assignment so much that many added photos and music from their character's culture. "Any time students go beyond the required assignment, you can rest assured that they are engaged," says Miller. The pages took less time to grade and were more interesting than reading one term paper after another, he says.