Working the crowd: How to teach at scale

01 October 2018 - By: Alex evans

Working the crowd: How to teach at scale

Workshop attendees (credit - Simon Callaghan)
Workshop attendees. Photo:Simon Callaghan

By Alex Evans

Finding new and effective strategies for teaching biology to students can often be difficult – especially when you’re outnumbered two hundred to one. The ‘Teaching Biology at Different Scales’ session organised by Katharine Hubbard and Lucy Tallents featured talks by expert educators on how to handle the issue of large class sizes, including an interactive workshop that encouraged the discussion of the challenges and opportunities associated with teaching biology at scale.

As enthusiastic educators, Katharine Hubbard (University of Hull, UK) and Lucy Tallents (University of Oxford, UK) wanted to organise a session highlighting the best strategies for teaching large cohorts of students. “Teaching large classes is an issue that affects teachers of all disciplines, and we hoped this session would be useful for all sorts of educators,” explained Katharine. “Lucy does most of her teaching online and I do most of mine in person, so between us we had a range of topics and ideas to discuss.” Katharine and Lucy were especially keen to provide this session for the more research-focused attendees of the SEB Annual Meeting, who they feel are an ideal audience for these teaching tips and strategies: “We love the annual SEB conference as it is a great place for bringing together people that are passionate about learning and teaching.”


What does a large class size mean to you? 60, 100 or 400 students? These are just some of the varied responses given by attendees when asked this question by Katja Strohfeldt, Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading. “I personally find this question fascinating,” said Katja. “Most of the literature refers to 100 students as a large class, but I remember being taught in a class of 800!” According to Katja, large class sizes can’t be so easily classified by the number of students, as the real challenge of a ‘large’ class comes by having to upscale and rethink your teaching style to work beyond cohort sizes that you are personally comfortable with; a size that is likely to vary from teacher to teacher. But once you’ve identified what a large class size means to you, how do you go about adjusting your teaching style to match their needs?

Thankfully, Katja has got you covered! During her talk, Katja introduced us to the ‘Large Class Education Toolkit’1, a free and publicly available resource that she created in order to help tackle some of the common issues that cropped up during the session. The key aims of Katja’s toolkit are to promote inclusive and evidence-based teaching that is easily accessible and understandable, supported by real-life case studies and profiles of University champions that help students identify with role models within their faculty.

During her research for the toolkit, Katja identified not only the best tips and tricks for handling large classes, but also organised them into categories by their time commitments. After speaking with her fellow academics, she found that many of her colleagues were interested in learning how to better handle large class sizes but felt that they lacked the time to research these strategies for themselves, so Katja aimed to provide a range of tips to suit any time commitment. “I wanted to create something that would be easily accessible and clearly structured to demonstrate that only a small time investment is needed to utilise these tools,” she explained, adding that she also included grander but more time-consuming ideas for more adventurous teachers. The easier-to-implement and less time-consuming strategies include the use of engaging teaching aids such as online classroom polls and ‘pencasts’ that allow students to see visual text and diagrams being drawn in real-time. Some of the more ambitious strategies include constructing practical lectures based around problem-based learning or ‘flipping the classroom’ by taking a more interactive approach to teaching, which can be useful for keeping large classes stimulated and focused.

Speaking to her after the session, Katja was very happy with this opportunity to share her toolkit with so many enthusiastic educators: “Large class sizes are very common in biology courses and biology teachers are therefore one of the prime target audiences for this toolkit,” she said. “I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts and ideas at the SEB Annual Meeting and receiving encouraging comments from people from all over the world”.


Not limiting themselves to simply organising the session, for one hour in the afternoon, Katharine and Lucy gathered the attendees into small discussion groups for an interactive idea-sharing workshop on the topic of teaching large cohorts. Some of the most frequently mentioned issues were those of student isolation and anonymity, which can only become more amplified in large class sizes. Thankfully, the table discussions provided useful insights in how to tackle these challenges. “A major theme that surfaced was the need for more student and teacher ‘personalisation’ in classrooms,” explained Katharine. “It is important that students don’t feel lost in the crowd, so having a continuous familiar member of staff that they can rely on for both work and pastoral problems makes a big difference,” added Lucy.

Another theme that arose frequently throughout the workshop was the use of online learning environments. While these can provide easy access to resources and discussion forums, they also run the risk of making learning even more detached and impersonal if not managed properly. However, many attendees found that that if regularly updated by a member of staff, they can be very useful in creating a coherent shared learning environment between classroom and computer screen. “There are many web and phone apps that can help to increase student interaction when working with large class sizes,” explained Lucy. “They can transform a student’s experience of what lectures can be, so it was great to see that so many people were using these tools.”

A final take-away message from the workshop was the importance of maintaining pastoral care for students. It’s one thing to ensure that students are being educated but it’s another to ensure that they’re engaged and comfortable with their learning environment. “Regardless of class size, some students might feel confused and isolated without clear channels of communication with staff,” said Lucy, adding that this is even more likely for international students, or those that are parttime or living far from campus. “Interactive group experiments and informal learning spaces give students opportunities to bond and familiarise themselves with each other, as well as learning how to collect and interpret their own data,” concluded Lucy. The whole suite of strategies and ideas shared during the workshop were uploaded to a digital Padlet whiteboard2, which can be accessed by anyone looking to improve their skills as an educator.


In today’s technologically-concentrated culture, students can easily become bored or distracted when it comes to learning in large cohorts – so why not fight fire with fire? Nicola Veitch from the University of Glasgow presented the work that she and Pam Scott have put into developing digital apps and phone games for enhancing the student learning experience.

Nicola and Pam first logged on to the idea for their digital educational tools while teaching molecular biology to large cohorts of students. “We were looking for an innovative way to deliver online support resources and had seen some education research on the increased use of mobile technology”, explained Nicola. “We wanted something the students could access at home, on the go, and in the lab, so mobile apps seemed to fit the bill.” After speaking with students through questionnaires and focus groups, they found support for the creation of an app that would help them to understand key molecular biology concepts in their own time – and the seed for the ‘Molecular Methods’ app was planted!

However, it would be wrong to give all the credit to Nicola and Pam for developing this app, as much of the work was done in collaboration with biology and computing science students; something that Nicola and Pam both recommend for those interested in pursuing similar digital ventures. “We strongly recommend collaborating with students and graduate teaching assistants when developing apps and games,” explained Nicola. “It not only enriches the final product as the students are able to influence the content and design to suit their needs, but it also enhances their practical experience of key employability skills.”

Taking the idea one step further, Nicola and Pam wanted to build on the app and create an even more interactive and rewarding learning experience. This experience came in the form of ‘PrimeIt’, a mobile game that resulted from a student competition centred around designing games that would help other students understand challenging aspects of the molecular biology module. “The winner was a third year Genetics student who produced an incredible concept and design,” explained Nicola, adding that both the app and the game have seen great success and feedback thus far. “The app has 17,000 downloads to date and the game now has over 4,000 downloads, both with 5 star reviews across the board.” Looking to the future, Nicola and Pam aren’t ready to slow down and have even more adventurous ideas in their sights. “Virtual Reality is a digital tool that is now being developed for education purposes,” Nicola explained. “We have not used this ourselves yet but would like to in the future”.


Category: Teaching and Learning
Alex Evans

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.