Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Teaching and learning of science in a large class situation

Anne Mathews
University Support Centre
The University of Western Australia
In order to gain an understanding of students' learning habits during lectures and ways of teaching effectively in large class sizes 375 first year students, of a class size of 550 enrolled in Human Biology 100 at the University of Western Australia, were surveyed. Aspects of the survey included: student interaction with the lecturer; note-taking and note-making techniques; learning during and soon after lectures; researching the topic covered; study habits; attitudes to learning; critical thinking; and preparation for examinations. The results clearly indicate that although the vast majority of the students plan to attend lectures and take notes, they were unsure of whether they had adequate note-taking and note-making skills. Another significant finding was that very few students attempt to interact with the lecturer in the classroom in terms of asking questions or engaging in discussions. However, a majority of the students did indicate that they endeavour to answer questions posed by the lecturer. In terms of researching the topic covered in the lectures, most students were unsure about whether they should do any extra reading on the topics covered. Overall, students felt that they lacked appropriate strategies to learn material presented in lectures and to prepare for examinations. In the light of these findings, strategies for teaching and learning effectively in large class situations will be discussed in this paper.


A student entering into a university is faced with the challenge of making major adjustments to one's life both socially and academically. Students need personal and practical help to make this transition into tertiary education rapid and efficient. A lack of skills during the transition process is a major cause of difficulty to students beginning university. However, with the help of competent lecturers, a good study environment and the development of good study skills promoting independent learning, one can quickly learn to adjust academically to the new institution. "Students need to be able to take useful notes, read effectively and efficiently, write well structured essays and reports, and have the confidence to cope with exams" (Habeshaw, 1995). The importance of good teaching cannot be overemphasised as "good teaching will encourage high quality student learning" (Ramsden, 1992). In addition, "most first year students experience large classes and are often unprepared for and bewildered by them. Students frequently talked about being anonymous and passive and are frustrated by their lack of say in what is happening to them" (Ward and Jenkins, 1992).

Lecturers are increasingly challenged with the task of teaching large classes of students particularly in the first year of a course. A large class from the perspective of the learner is one in which the student begins to feel anonymous much like an invisible face in a sea of faces (Davis and McLeod, 1996). Some lecturers consider a class over 40 students as large. Generally, in classes over 100 students begin to feel anonymous. In addition, there are very few opportunities for interaction and active learning in the classroom in large classes. A link between small class size and improved learning was indicated in early research conducted on class size. Later research indicates that the effectiveness of the lecturer in terms of competency and an interest in the students is more important whether in a small or large class situation.

Large classes today tend to be heterogeneous and include students from various disciplines. In addition, students from diverse and heterogeneous groups are present in any course. According to Trindle (1994) "we have seen an enormous expansion in the numbers of students attending university as well as representing formerly ignored, neglected and marginalised groups of our society". As a result, diversity in student learning and approaches exist in any classroom situation. Some students learn by the 'surface approach' while others learn by the 'deep approach'. Large classes tend to generate 'surface approaches' in students rather than 'deep approaches' (Biggs, 1993).

The lecture, whereby ideas and content are reported to students by itself is inappropriate today (Nias, 1995). Given the rise in student numbers and the limited time lecturers have for individual students, it is important that students not regard their lecturers as the only source of learning and guidance (Nias, 1995). In addition, when the traditional method of lecturing is employed in a large class situation, students tend to be largely passive in large classes. Therefore, some of the questions and issues concerned with teaching large classes are: How can one deal efficiently with a large group of students in the classroom? What are some of the ways in which interaction can be encouraged in the classroom? What are some of the challenges lecturers face in teaching large groups of students? and What effective strategies can be used in the teaching of large classes?

The aim of this paper is to identify some of the challenges associated with teaching science to first year students in large class situations and to suggest techniques that can be used to meet these challenges. Teaching large classes requires methods that are tailored to meet the needs of students and lecturers in large group situations.

The research

The learning environment used in this experiment consisted of a class of 550 students enrolled in the first year unit Human Biology 100 at the University of Western Australia in 1997. The class consisted of predominantly students enrolled in science (94%) while the remaining 6 per cent of the class were enrolled in arts. In order to research teaching and learning for first year students in a large class, 375 students were surveyed with the aid of a questionnaire on aspects which included: interaction with the lecturer; study skills techniques such as note-taking and note-making; learning during lectures and soon after lectures; researching topics covered in the lecture; study habits and attitude towards learning; and preparation for examinations.

Attendance at lectures

Attendance at lectures in large class situations is often erratic and anonymity is a major factor in the erratic student attendance at lectures. In addition, there is also the very real practical difficulty of having a roll call of all the students in the class during the lectures. However, 93 per cent of the students surveyed in this research indicated that they did plan to attend all lectures and practical classes. This could be because the students were enrolled in a science unit which sometimes requires attendance at lectures as almost a prerequisite for understanding the subject matter and answering examinations. It is also possible that the structure and the delivery of the unit, which consisted of a series of lectures by different lecturers, might be another possible reason for better attendance at lectures.

Learning behaviour in the classroom

A significant number of students (65%) indicated that they copy everything that the lecturer displays on the board or screen. In terms of writing everything that the lecturer speaks in the class a vast majority of the students said that they did not endeavour to do this. About 50 per cent of the class indicated that they did write down their thoughts and ideas and questions for clarification during the class. "Go to lectures and think", a suggestion given by a third year student is an important point.

However, lecturing (wherein the lecturer stands in front of the class and talks) is normally the only method employed in teaching large classes. This results in very little interaction between the student and the lecturer and the students tend to be largely passive. Therefore, teaching large classes effectively would require improving the teaching materials and employing activities that can encourage students to think and learn actively. Likewise, presentation of material in a variety of ways that encourage active learning and thinking in the classroom is important in teaching large classes of students.

Study skills

Students were unsure whether they had adequate note-taking and note-making skills. A significant number of students indicated that they do not make summaries of their notes for revision for examinations nor rewrite or reconstitute their notes. This is probably due to the differences in teaching at the secondary and tertiary level. Some of these first year students were perhaps now taking responsibility for their studies and learning to become independent learners unlike the secondary school scenario where the teachers tend to 'spoon-feed' students. In terms of daily revision of the lectures, 25 per cent said that they would look at their notes only while revising for examinations.

Learning outside of the classroom situation

In terms of researching the topic covered in the lectures, 63 per cent of the students did not know whether it was required of them to do additional reading on the topics covered in the lecture. Once again, this might have been due to the fact that at the secondary level they were clearly told by their teachers the depth of understanding required of them on different topics covered. On the other hand, the following suggestion given by a third year student "reading a wide range of sources and listening carefully in lectures and tutorials is the real key to success" indicates the importance of both reading widely and listening in the classroom. Yet another final year student indicated the importance of learning outside of the classroom situation "I found rewriting my notes and making references from textbooks helped."

Interaction with the lecturer

When asked whether they ask questions during lectures, 95 per cent of the students said that they did not. This is understandable as interaction with the lecturer is minimised in large size classes where the traditional method of lecturing is used. The lecturer normally lectures with the aid of a microphone and it is almost impossible for the student to be heard when asking a question without the aid of another microphone. Likewise, students may feel reluctant to express their opinion in a large class for a number of reasons: feeling that they might be taking up the time of a large class, need to have something worthwhile to say before a large audience; and afraid of making a fool of themselves in front of a large and intimidating group (Davis and McLeod, 1996). However, students did say that they would attempt to answer questions posed by the lecturer which could involve take home questions and revision questions.

Challenges of teaching large first year classes

Teaching large class is a challenge many lecturers face in universities today. Both students and lecturers face difficulties in learning and teaching in large classes. For some lecturers it is also a hard task as the techniques that are tried and tested in a small class situation often do not work in a large class situation. The problem is compounded when the students in the class are first year students. This is because the students themselves are in the process of adjusting to teaching and learning at the university which is quite different to that of studying at the secondary level. The students are in the process of learning study skills suitable for meeting the challenges of university education in terms of acquiring information skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills and learning to take responsibility for their learning as independent learners.

There are several challenges in teaching a very large class of first year students. The foremost of which is the problem of student anonymity in the classroom. Student-lecturer contact and interaction is minimised when the class size is large. In large classes, students may themselves expect less personal involvement (Davis and McLeod, 1996). Interaction is essential in any teaching students irrespective of any class size or year of study. Interaction with students inside and outside of the classroom is important in endeavouring to breakdown the feeling of insignificance and anonymity. In very large classes, the lecturers cannot provide individual assistance to students and there could be large numbers of students who need help but cannot access it. Individual attention is not at all possible in large classes and the shy and timid students tend to hide in crowds (Davis and McLeod, 1996).

Teaching large classes also involves a greater amount of preparation for teaching including preparation of the teaching material and handouts. Careful planning of the lecture and its delivery is essential for efficient teaching of a large class, particularly if one is planning to get involvement and interaction among the students. All activities to be conducted in the classroom have to be carefully planned. Distribution of teaching material to the large classes should also be well planned as this can cause disruption and waste valuable time during the lecture.

There is also a potential for disruptive behaviour in large classes. This could happen at the beginning of the class, during the class and at the conclusion of a lecture. Arriving after the lectures have commenced can also be very disruptive to learning of those students already present in the class. The conclusion of a lecture in a large class is also a challenge to the lecturer lecturing to the class as students begin to pack their bags and leave the classroom.

Marking assignments rapidly for large classes to provide regular feedback particularly if they are first year students is important. However, this does pose problems for the lecturer in very large classes as lecturers find it difficult to provide individual feedback quickly (Ramsden, 1992).

As explained above, interaction in large classes can be quite intimidating for some students who tend to shy away and recede into the back rows of the classroom. These students who are most in need of assistance are least noticed in large classes. For some students fear of crowds can also cause some real problems in speaking up and expressing their opinions.

Strategies for teaching large classes

When one is faced with the reality of teaching large classes, the lecturer has to adapt his/her teaching method to accommodate some of the challenges and difficulties of teaching large classes. Following are some strategies that can be used in teaching first year students in science to accommodate some of the challenges and difficulties of teaching large classes. Teaching of large classes can be a positive experience for both the lecturer and the student. For the lecturer, teaching large classes if done well can be fulfilling as well as challenging as it is satisfying to see so many students learn and grow into independent and lifelong learners. In order to make learning more meaningful for students in large classes, it is important to find efficient as well as effective ways of teaching. In the words of Davis and McLeod (1996) "to communicate effectively in large groups is not impossible, but like the actor and the politician, the teacher who would communicate effectively with a mass audience must learn new skills". From the perspective of students in large classes, there are some positive aspects of learning in large classes and they include: the presence of other students, low pressure, a feeling of independence and anonymity. As a result of the independence fostered in large classes, students learn to become independent, self-directed and lifelong learners (Gilbert, 1995).


Biggs, J. (1993). What do inventories of student learning processes really measure ? A theoretical review and classification. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 3-19.

Davis, G. and McLeod, N. (1996). Teaching large classes: The silver lining. HERSDA News, 18, 1, 3-5.

Davis, G. and McLeod, N. (1996). Teaching large classes: The silver lining. The final challenge: assessment and feedback. HERSDA News, 18, 5-12.

Gilbert, S. (1995). Quality education: Does class size matter? AUCC Publication. http://www.aucc.ca/english/publications/research/apr95.html

Habeshaw, T. (1995). The Art of Lecturing 2. New Academic, 1, 3-6.

Nias, J. (1995). Developing intellectual independence. New Academic, 1, 8-9.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. Routledge, London.

Trindle, L. E. (1994). Diversity and heterogeneity. Paper presented at QUT Counselling Services Retreat, 7, 1994.

Ward, A. and Jenkins, A. (1992). The problems of learning and teaching in large classes. In Gibbs, G. and Jenkins, A. (eds), Teaching large classes in higher education. Kogan Page.London.

Please cite as: Mathews, A. (1998). Teaching and learning of science in a large class situation. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 194-198. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/mathews-b.html

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