Effective Teaching - Balancing Large Classes with Evidence Based Teaching Practices

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For most of us, the large lecture was a staple of the college experience.  It is also feels familiar and comfortable and in many cases is what we are already doing.  Thus, as demands on our time seem to always be growing, the time required to restructure a lecture, or worse, an entire course simply feels out of reach.  This is certainly what I felt like when I started teaching my courses as a graduate student.  Then I began engaging with science educators and had a number of experiences that changed the course of my teaching and indeed my career.  The evidence that the large lecture style of teaching does not serve our students as well as it should grows by the day.  Indeed, the overwhelming evidence from science education is that not only do so called active learning strategies result in better learning and improved retention and persistence in STEM fields, but these effects are larger for classically underrepresented groups. 

So how do we balance what is best for our students with the reality of the time constraints of everyday life?  I have found the best answer is to start small.  Pick one topic that has traditionally been a challenge for students and put together a small in-class activity around that topic.  This could simply be a think-pair-share in which the instructor asks a question, pauses to allow students to think on their own about it, then share their thoughts with a neighbor.  Or pick one strategy to implement across the whole course.  One example is exit tickets which allow an instructor to gather feedback from students on topics that they may be struggling with in a low stakes, low time commitment way.  There are lots of high quality resources out there with great ideas that can be integrated into a course. Many of these are fairly straightforward to implement and can have high impact even in a large lecture. 

Many of the worries that I had about doing more active learning strategies did not come to be and although there have certainly been many times where an activity didn’t go as expected or in some cases, outright failed, the benefits have been clear.  Overall, I have found that being transparent with students about why I am doing an activity and modeling an open, growth mindset has resulted in better teaching, and better learning for me and my students.        

Here are some links to my favorite resources:


Active Learning in Large Lectures - UCSC (Instructor: Robin Dunkin)

Inclusive Teaching - UCSC (Instructor: Jody Green)


Center for Urban Education

Univeristy of California at Santa Cruz - Center for Innovative Teaching & Learning

Vanderbilt Teaching Large Lecture Guide

University of Washington Teaching Center

CBE Life Science Journal Evidence Based Teaching Guides

Graph of the Week


pdfThe Sytem Needs to be Changed. Colleen Flaherty. Inside Higher Ed

Why We’re “Speaking Up” About Inclusive Teaching Strategies

Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try

Can Grades Hinder Learning?


Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon

Small Teaching, James Lang

The New Education, Cathy Davidson

How Learning Works


pdfPeterson et al., (2020). The Tyranny of Content: "Content Coverage" as a Barrier to Evidence-Based Teaching Approaches and Ways to Overcome it

pdfStarr et al., (2019). Engaging in science practices in classrooms predicts increases in undergraduates' STEM motivation, identity, and achievement: A short-term longitudinal study

pdfDeslauriers et al., (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom.

pdfOwens, M. T., Tanner, K. D. (2017). Teaching as Brain Changing: Exploring Connections between Neuroscience and Innovative Teaching. CBE life sciences education, 16(2).

pdfEcarnot et al., (2015). How to Write a Scientific Paper.

pdfChi and Wylie (2014. The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes

pdfTanner KD. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE Life Sciences Education.12(3):322-331

pdfMichael, Joel. (2006). Where is the evidence that active learning works? Advances in physiology education, 30(4).

pdfDirks, C., Cunningham, M. (2006). Enhancing diversity in science: is teaching science process skills the answer?. CBE life sciences education, 5(3), 218-226.