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Approach to Teaching Large Classes:
Designing a syllabus

What is a syllabus?

A syllabus is a written contract between the professor and the students enrolled in the course.  Like any contract, the syllabus provides protection for all of the parties involved by specifying the terms they are agreeing to and what is promised in return. 

Why is a clear and concise syllabus more important in a large class?

A large class is like a regular class except everything is magnified.  If you have 5 questions about the syllabus in a regular class, you can expect to have five-times as many in a large class.  This makes it imperative that you have a clear and concise syllabus. 

What are the components of a syllabus?

  • General Information
    This section of the syllabus details the course name, instructor’s name and contact information, office hours, the day and time the course meets, and classroom location.
  • Course Description
    The course description is an overview of the course content.  The description should be concise and conform to your university’s official course description.
  • Course Goals/Objectives
    The goals and objectives of the course outline what the professor expects to teach and what the student can expect to learn.  The learning outcomes should indicate what skills and knowledge will be acquired while in the class.
  • Required Reading/Supplies
    This section of the syllabus indicates what reading materials are required for the course, any optional readings and other materials that will be necessary (i.e. special notebooks, software etc.)
  • Course Requirements
    Course requirements detail exactly what is necessary for satisfactory progress in the course.  This should include items such as attendance, exams, papers and class participation. 
  • Grading Procedures/Scale
    The course evaluation portion of the syllabus outlines what the student must do to earn an A, B, and C etc.  This section should explain how each assignment will be graded and how the final grade is calculated.  (Example:  Midterm – 30% Final Exam – 50% Participation – 20%).  In addition, you should explain your university’s policy for contesting a grade. 
  • Course Policies
    • Attendance
      Provide a very detailed explanation of the attendance policy and the penalties that can be expected if not followed.  Indicate how many days can be missed, what kind of proof is necessary for illnesses or funerals etc.  You may not be able to take daily attendance in a large class but you can do things like give pop quizzes.
    • Missed Assignments
      If students can turn in assignments after the due date it should be explained in the syllabus.  Likewise, if assignments are not accepted late that should also be made clear along with any penalties.
    • Communication
      As class sizes continue to grow it is important to let students know what is considered the official method of communication.  If students should check their email regularly or read Blackboard it should be outlined in their syllabus.
    • Classroom Conduct and Netiquette
      Managing classroom conduct can be challenging when you are out numbered 100:1.  Your syllabus should detail the kind of behavior that is expected in your course.  Stress respect for each other’s thoughts and ideas and the classroom environment.  Moreover, your syllabus should indicate how students should behave while using electronic postings or email.  Your policies on conduct should also reflect the university-wide policy.
    • Exam policy
      The exam policy should specify how many exams a student is expected to take, the penalties for not taking an exam and any make-up policy that is applicable.  The make-up policy is very important when you are teaching a large class because you will have 3 times the number of students that miss an exam for some reason or another.  You will have to be strict in the enforcement of this policy to ensure that all students are treated fairly.
    • Students with Disabilities
      Your syllabus should provide students with an explanation of their rights as a person with disabilities.  Your statement should be an excerpt copied directly from your university policy and if possible provide information on how students can read the entire university policy (i.e. a website or contact information).
    • Plagiarism/Academic Honesty
      It is important to explain what constitutes plagiarism, how to cite works properly and the consequences that can result if they are charged with plagiarism or cheating.  Ensure that your policies coincide with the overall university policy on academic honesty.
    • Inclement weather
      Provide students with the procedures that should be followed during inclement weather.  If your class will only be cancelled when the university is closed then direct students to the website, television or radio station that will announce that information.
  • Course Schedule
    The course schedule should provide a detailed list of exam dates, order of lecture topics, assignment due dates and any other important information such as “last date to withdraw” dates or holidays.
  • Caveat/Warning
    It is always best to provide a caveat, which states that the instructor reserves the right to make necessary changes to the syllabus.  (see Flexibility)

What are some other considerations when teaching a large class?

  • Types of assignments
    When you teach a large class you need to ensure that the types of assignments you provide are reasonable.  Consider how many students you have and whether items such as essay exams are going to be manageable. 
  • GTAs
    When teaching a large class it is imperative that you have some assistance.  The assistance you get from graduate teaching assistants is not only for your benefit but also for that of the students.  Students in your course should be able to receive feedback in a timely manner and GTAs can help you.  GTAs can be used to grade exams, assist in group discussions during class, proctor exams, answer questions and much more.
  • Flexibility
    When constructing your syllabus you should provide students with a caveat that some items are subject to change.  But when teaching a large class you want to stray away from making additional changes unless they are absolutely necessary.  You lose some flexibility because it is very difficult to ensure that everyone understands what was modified and how that change affects him or her.

Are there good make-up policies for large classes?

Creating an effective make-up policy for a large class is to craft one that is fair for the students and manageable for you as an instructor.  In a small class having students make up exams when they have missed them during your office hours is not a difficult task.  How hard is it to manage a couple of students’ make-up exams every now and then?  Now image that a couple of students turn in to a couple of dozen students every time you give an exam. 

  • A more effective way of handling make-up exams in large classes is to give one cumulative make-up exam for all students who have missed any exams during the semester. 
    • This allows for you to tell your students at the beginning of the course that that their excuses for missing an exam are automatically accepted
    • This also limits the number of emails and phone calls that you will get prior to each exam.
    • Instructors can utilize a class period at the end of the semester to give the make-up exam or have students take the make-up exam during the same time period as when they take their final exam.  
  • Second make-up exam suggestion
    • Positive aspect of this suggestion
    • Positive aspect of this suggestion
  • Third make-up exam suggestion
    • Positive aspect of this suggestion
    • Positive aspect of this suggestion

Are there issues of anonymity in large classes?

One of the biggest challenges in teaching large classes is overcoming the anonymity that students can sometimes feel when they are in a large class. 

  • Large classes allow for students to begin developing a group identity. 
  • This is most often a result of the student’s lack of feeling that he or she will be called on their actions.
  • Anonymity can be a challenge because student behavior can get out of hand and can ultimately negatively impact the learning process. 
  • The best way of addressing issues of anonymity in a large class are:
    • To address students when possible so that they feel that they are individually connected to the course. 
    • Attempt to make eye contact at a variety of levels in the class, don’t just concentrate on the students in the first row. 
    • Make the students in last row in your class feel as though they are connected to you as well.
  • This is your best way as an instructor to break down the walls that students put up when they go into a large class and make them feel as though they are in a class of 20 instead of 200.

What is the best way to control class discussion in a large class?

Class discussion is something that every instructor wants to occur in his or her class.  Large classes are no different in this aspect.  It is the management of these discussions that are difficult.  

  • It is important that the instructor maintains control of the discussion
  •  Always make sure that it stays on point.  It is very easy for students in large classes to take the discussion off track because of the large number of opinions. 
  • As an instructor in large classes it is helpful to create ground rules for class discussions.
  •  Instructors should include these guidelines in their syllabus and make a point the first day of class to go over them.
  •  Instructors in large classes should also consider including guidelines about on-line discussions in their syllabus.  Both of these sets of guidelines help control the discussion in and out of the classroom without stifling it.

Are there certain assignments that I should use or not use in teaching a large class?

When instructors create course assignments for large classes they must think about the amount of time it will take to provide feedback to the students.  For example, short answer and essay exams are a great way to access students learning.  However, grading 300 lengthy essay exams and getting feedback to the students in a reasonable timeframe would be difficult.  This does not mean that essay and short answer questions are not possible in large classes they are just more difficult to manage.  It might be more effective to mix the short answer and essay questions with multiple choice and true false questions to limit the amount of timed required to provide feedback to the students.  It is also important to remember that instructors can utilize the Blackboard system to give on-line quizzes and tests.  This is also a very effective in large classes.  You can post a quiz, create an answer key, have the students take the quiz at a designated time and have the graded automatically posted into the grade book. 

How can I use Blackboard in a large class?

Communicating with 300 students is more time consuming than communicating with 30 students.  Although the use of technology is great in any size class, it is essential in a large class.  How much or how little you choose to use Blackboard is up to you.  Some instructors only use it for posting grades and emails while others post supplemental readings, set up discussion forums and administer exams or quizzes.  Whatever you decide using Blackboard can be a tool that helps you save time. (See more on technology)

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