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Working with Large Groups

What can you do with a group of 150+, except lecture at them? It isn't easy, but...


Don't dismiss the lecture. It has its limitations, but research conducted for the Dearing Report (1997) notes that 73% of undergraduates said that they enjoyed their lectures—a higher figure than for any of the other teaching methods mentioned.

But the problems of the very large group are mainly those of anonymity and hence passivity and hence attention drift.

  • Deal with drifting attention by your lively lecturing style, by having a clear structure, and by
  • breaking up the long haul of a one-hour lecture into 10- or 15-minute chunks. Pose some questions to the group, and get them to talk to their neighbours about them, then take a few responses from all parts of the lecture theatre as the basis for the next bit. In many respects the task element of answering a question is less significant than the process element of punctuating the lecture.
  • Deal with passivity by developing feedback mechanisms—however crude they may be. Showing hands may not be very sophisticated, but it is a way of getting a response to a closed question. If that question is not loaded, in the sense of having a right or wrong answer, so much the better. If you actually make use of the information to control the flow of the lecture, better still.

    Ruth Pickford recommends giving students coloured cards to signal to you. Red, yellow, green and blue cards allow you to set four-choice questions, for example. Nowadays you can take feedback via Twitter—just set up a hashtag for the lecture—or poll via forms in Google Drive. Clickers are so last year.

  • Anonymity is almost the defining characteristic of the large group: but sub-group membership is its other side. Those questions can be different for one side of the lecture theatre versus the other, or the front rows versus the back. This helps individual students to feel—however ephemerally—members of a group which is large enough to count. You can even develop simple competitions.
  • If students find it hard to speak in a large lecture setting, give them opportunities to pass questions to you by notes at the end of the session.
  • Gimmicks can become a bore after a while: they should not detract from the main point of the lecture—but what is that? Institutional requirements can demand that material be taught through lectures which really calls for small classes and even hands-on sessions, but if you can see the lecture event itself as just one part of a "course delivery system", you can focus on what it can best contribute. There is no need to re-hash the textbook, for example—simply point out the parts to read. Students do not have to take down everything you say, if there is a handout or the OHTs are on the intranet. Effective lectures are those which offer a perspective which can be gained nowhere else: a particular angle or overview, or an integration of ideas across disciplines.
  • Who said only one voice could be heard in a lecture? Experiment with delivery with a colleague: the possibilities are legion. And some of the feedback techniques really need a teaching assistant to process that information...

Too-large "seminars" and "tutorials"

At least with a lecture the expectations are fairly clear, and in many courses they are intended to be complemented by smaller seminar groups. All too often, however, pressures to teach more students with fewer staff hours mean that these groups are too large to be able to do with them what you intended. You can't get students to deliver papers to a group of 30: you would never get through the group in a semester. Where the seminar is based on follow-up questions related to the lecture, or articles students are supposed to have read, a group of more than a dozen or so lets the quieter and/or less motivated students leave the field to the keen and/or vociferous.

  • Again, do not try anything too gimmicky. Undergraduate students in particular tend to value solid content over process, particularly in large group sessions, where the dependence dynamic is strongest. Unless radical approaches are enshrined in the overall course philosophy, you may not have time to get students used to them before your module has finished.
  • So it helps if you can establish a routine: the first ten minutes for questions arising from the lecture, for example, followed by circulation of an article or problem, to be studied in established groups for fifteen minutes. The basic structure is flexible enough to allow variations, but the overall shape becomes sufficiently well-known to require little stage-management.
  • Use small groups if you can. With more than four small groups, reporting-back can become unmanageable, so you may find yourself using poster-based methods, which are less time-consuming (but also permit less involvement).
  • You may find that splitting the group into two enables you to work with one half of the group as if it were a seminar or tutorial of ideal size. You could "foreground" one half one week, and the other the next. Half the group is of course relegated to "audience" status at any one time, but that may just be a reflection of what would probably have happened anyway. The "fishbowl" layout is a way of handling this physically.

More on my take on this work here

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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