Tips for Managing Larger Online Classes
When an instructor is accustomed to teaching an online class of a particular size, and is asked to teach a class appreciably larger, he or she may notice an increased level of activity and time needed for daily review, reading, and feedback.
An increase in class size will definitely influence how well an existing course design supports the facilitation of teaching and learning. But instructors can actually do a lot to help both their students and themselves feel more comfortable and be more successful in the classroom by adjusting the design to adapt to the larger class.
The following simple tips can assist instructors in fine-tuning the course for a greater number of students while still adhering to the course learning objectives and to UMUC's commitment to student-centered, interactive online classes. Each tip is grounded in the principles of arranging the class so that you can interact more with the whole class and groups of students, encouraging active learning and student initiative, and reserving precious time for providing feedback on major assignments to individual students.
- For discussion or problem solving in study groups, move some of the discussion topics or problem-solving exercises to the study group area. Study groups can then be asked to summarize and post their discussions or conclusions to the class as a whole in designated conferences. If the study groups are organized for the purpose of discussion alone, you can make them as large as 10 members. This is an ideal size to promote more discussion and diverse views. Also, be sure to let students know you will be observing their group discussions and giving them a participation grade for their individual contributions to the study group discussions as well as to the whole class discussion. Continue to post comments and follow-up questions in the full class discussion so that students are aware of your presence and can benefit from questions designed to promote higher level thinking and deeper learning.
- Trim conferences so as to break down themes and topics into more manageable units. In a class of 24-34 students, be careful not to have more than a few Main Topic threads in one conference, especially if each topic is fairly complex. Don't hesitate to create a new topic thread or even a new conference for the same week if needed. (If you create a second conference for the same week, be sure to carefully label it and explain the structure of the weekly conferences to students so there is no confusion.) Less crowded conferences make it easier for students to follow threads.
- Remind students to change title lines in their conference postings to indicate the subject of their responses. Also, remind students to quote the actual portion of the posting to which they are responding.
- You may also want to reconsider the minimum number of postings you require of students each week in the main conference area. For example, depending on the type of discussion topic or assignment, it may be appropriate for you to ask students for a minimum of one reply to another student rather than to two classmates. Or, you may want to reduce the required number of instructor-posted questions to which students must respond.
- When the class contains a copious amount of required reading or research assignments involving the locating and analysis of relevant readings and websites, assign individual students or students in small groups to summarize or analyze the material. Then have them present their findings to the whole class and lead the discussion for that week. As noted above with study groups, you may also assign students to summarize and analyze the week's full class discussion.
Grading and Feedback
- It is not necessary to respond to every student in every conference. Answer all questions, but you may be able to summarize portions of the discussion and respond, or combine responses to similar postings and provide follow up questions that ask students to dig a little deeper. For example, "Joe and Janet, you have both commented on such and such in X. Do you think this might also apply to Y?"
- If appropriate, replace at least one individual assignment with a small group project for students to work in pairs or threes. Divide up the grade between individual contribution to the project and a grade for the project as a whole. You may also ask the students to evaluate their own study group performance and that of their peers using a simple rubric.
- Peer review-- Have students use a rubric or clearly defined criteria that you have devised to review at least one assignment of their peers. For greater incentive, give credit to the student based on how well they have performed the peer review, not based on how favorably they were reviewed.
- Create a detailed rubric to guide your feedback of an assignment or project—while this requires some initial time, it allows you to assign a grade without having to give a great deal of additional commentary in your feedback. It also gives students a set of guidelines and a clearer idea of what your expectations are for the assignment.
- Save your more detailed individual feedback for key assignments—at least one of these should be given early in the semester so that the student receives the feedback needed to stay on the right track. The other should be on a major or culminating assignment.
Other Workload Issues
- Keep up a pattern of frequent visits to the classroom. This prevents a backlog of postings from piling up and also maintains a sense of your presence in the classroom.
- Revisit your class schedule, including due dates for assignments. Also, don't establish unrealistic deadlines for yourself in regard to returning long assignments. Even though you want to be as prompt as possible, take into consideration the amount and type of feedback you will be offering. Again, using a rubric plus individual comments will shorten the time of grading. Also, if you tend to teach the same class from semester to semester, and you have found that certain observations and comments are effective feedback under particular circumstances, don't hesitate to reuse the same phrasing when it applies to student work. Under the pressure of time, it is not always easy to find a new and creatively apt phrase that works as well as one tried and true formulation.
- Before any class begins, think about the profile of students in your class and if you have never taught that particular course, inquire of colleagues who have experience with that course or one of the same type and level. What types of writing or subject area problems are common to students in this course? Prepare a list of resources to which you can easily refer students who experience problems, whether those resources consist of a writing style manual, a reading from your field that provides necessary background in the subject matter for students who may be lacking that preparation, or other materials. While this is a worthwhile approach for any class, it is essential in a larger class where your time will be at a premium.
- If you have a larger group of students, you may need to make an extra effort to become familiar with and recognize them throughout the course. Take some notes after students have introduced themselves and throughout the course so that you can make those associations that will ensure you have not forgotten some important facts about that student. For example, Jim is the helicopter pilot who noted in week 3 that he did not understand X, the key to Y topic; Jane is the military student who expects to be deployed during week 7 of the course, etc. Again, while this is a helpful practice in any class, it is particularly needed in a larger class.
Finally, make the most of your larger class—the diverse backgrounds and potential for greater numbers of interactions among classmates can actually make the course more stimulating than one of smaller size. Keeping yourself organized is the key to maintaining your enthusiasm and energy for the class, and it is that enthusiasm and energy that will be communicated to the students.