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Approach to Large Classes:
The Importance of Ground Rules

VCU is a part of the dramatic shift within academics towards a learning-centered approach in the classroom.  This change comes in response to the wide diversity that characterizes the new generation of college students [Also see Know your students]. Students enter the college classroom with varying expectations that often do not match the already existing expectations of the faculty.  Developing efficient classroom management is necessary when transitioning between the lecture style of instruction and the learning-centered approach.

  • You must start with day one of class:  Establish the ground rules that govern behavior throughout the semester. 
  • Set a positive first impression for the students.  Just as you are feeling them out, they are looking for loop holes that provide easy outs for them. 

Setting the ground rules and expected behavior can be more easily achieved in a small classroom setting with group discussions, providing the students an opportunity to have input and a greater sense of commitment to those rules.  However, when you are faced with a group of 80 to 300 students, this is neither feasible nor efficient. 

Among the more common issues addressed are Classroom Expectations, Attendance, Discipline.  Each section will provide general suggestions, as well as common issues faced in large classes with possible solutions.


Setting the expectations are critical for all students from the first semester freshman to the graduating senior.  Expectations are the first area addressed in this chapter because the tone of the class is set on the first day and students need to have an understanding of the requirements.  As masters of our discipline and having taught other classes, we as professors know what is expected and required for success in the class, but too easily forget to communicate this to the students.  Since professors have different teaching styles, it is important to express your preferences early.  This does not need to be a secret from the students.  We want them to succeed, so let them know how.  Finally, when we set the expectations, this helps explain reasons for our rules and policies and justify enforcement.  Here are some suggestions…

  • Include a list of the expectations with the goals and objectives on the course syllabus
  • Provide hints or “How to survive my class” rules
  • Be clear and concise, keeping it simple will help eliminate “loop holes”
  • Use humor, such as “If you choose to sleep, I do not accept drooling on your neighbor”
  • Have a neutral third party read and review your expectations, are they reasonable?

Helpful University Links regarding classroom policies…


There is nothing like progressing through the semester and watching fewer and fewer students attend your class each day.  You know it is important to show up for lectures and the material that will be missed, yet how do you express the importance to the students?  When faced with a large class, taking attendance every day consumes valuable time for lecture or in-class activities, thus presented here are a few suggestions for promoting attendance…

  • Outline the number of attendances permitted without penalty in the syllabus
  • Note the official University attendance policy in the Undergraduate Bulletin
  • Use “Entrance Tickets” or the Classroom Performance System to count attendance
    » Tickets are questions related to the days lecture material, that does not necessarily need to be graded, but answers from students demonstrate attendance that day
  • Advertise the use of “Pop quizzes” throughout the semester with no make-up options
  • Use informal Writing-To-Learn activities to start the class and collect for attendance [Also see Writing Across the Curriculum]
  • Provide actual test questions as review for those in attendance
  • Vary the way you end class as a way to keep students attention until dismissed
  • Be flexible but consistent, if attendance is a part of the grade be objective in points awarded and clearly state expectations at the start of the semester


REMEMBER: Faculty members are the judge of what is deemed disruptive behavior in their classrooms.  Including the policy on disruptive behavior and consequences would be helpful for students.  Use the following site for further information: http://www.students.vcu.edu/rg/policies/rg7conductguide.html
Unfortunately, after setting the expectations and rules, we still face an array of discipline issues during the semester.  Do you passively let it go?  Do you address the student in front of the entire class?  Or do discuss the issue the student privately after class?  There might not be any one answer because we, as professors, have different styles when addressing conflict.  When faced with a large class we are presented with the physical separation from the students, leading to a feeling of anonymity and devaluing of the class by the students.  Here are a few suggestions to help combat many of the most common behavior issues…

  • Stress common courtesy towards other students and the professor
  • Do not allow issues to escalate, address them swiftly and appropriately by making the student(s) aware of their disruptive behavior
  • End class unpredictably to help keep students’ attention to the end of class, such as a preview of the next lecture or presenting possible test questions and a review
  • Consistency is important, but you need to be fair towards all students
  • Use positive feedback to promote appropriate behavior, instead of always pointing out what students are doing wrong

Here are links to the university policy on disruptive behavior…

Where to Start

Entering a large classroom can be daunting whether you are a veteran or a first-time adjunct professor.  So here are some suggestions on where to start…

  • Continue reading this manual written by professors currently teaching large classrooms
  • Search on Blackboard to course that allow “Guest” access and review policies developed by other professors
  • Have other faculty members within the VCU community review your policies and be open to suggestions
  • Contact the Center for Teaching Excellence and review the information presented

The suggestions expressed here are just the basics, however, the web addresses and suggested readings at the end of the each section provide you the opportunity to explore and develop personalized strategies. 

  • Generally, the course syllabus is the most economical method of distributing these policies, ground rules and expectations of the class to a large number of students.  A well defined syllabus can eliminate repeated questions and debate at the end of the semester. [Also see Designing a Syllabus]

The next section of this chapter will address developing a well organized syllabus.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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