Asking Questions in a Large Class (and getting answers)

By Roger Stradley

Last year, in my peer evaluation, the comment was made that I didn't give students a chance to answer my questions. After thinking about it, I had to agree. I mentioned this to another team member and we both agreed that the problem with asking non-directed (i.e., to the class) questions in a large class is that it "often elicits either no response or a garbled chorus of remarks"1. On the other hand a directed question (i.e., to a specific student) in a large class puts the student on the spot and may be embarrassing for the student. Consequently, I began reading about strategies used by others to overcome the problems of teaching a large class including how to ask questions without either getting an ineffectual response or embarrassing students.

What constitutes a large class? Cleveland2 defines 400-500 students as a mega-class, while at Penn State, they define a large class as over 1003. My own experience has been that, as class size increases above 20-30 students, it becomes progressively more difficult to actively involve the students. While many of the personal qualities that make a teacher effective in a small class would be the same qualities that are effective in a large class, the sheer numbers in a large class magnify what would otherwise be minor problems in a small class. All classes work best when the students take an active interest in the subject, and when teachers personalize the lectures3, however many students become anonymous and passive in a large class4. So, what can we do to actively involve each of the 130 plus veterinary students?

We tend to deliver a conventional lecture for the full 50 min, ending with the obligatory invitation: "any questions?"8. If we want students to ask and answer questions in a large class, then we must allow them to become comfortable with us. That is, they need to know we won?t embarrass them in an open discussion. This begins the first day of class. "You do not get a second chance to make a first impression"2. Share some information about yourself; students appreciate knowing more about you than just a name and office number7. This information might include:

  1. other courses that you teach
  2. your research
  3. why you love your subject
  4. personal background
  5. hobbies
  6. family
  7. etc.

One way to "break the ice" on the first day might be to do some sort of "brainstorming" with the class. For example, ask the students to call out the different organs in the gastrointestinal tract and then the overall functions of each. Praise and encourage any questions even though at times this may be a stretch.

Don?t stand behind the podium for the entire lecture. Remember that teaching is always a performance7. If you move out among the students when you speak, it will capture their attention and make them feel less anonymous8. I remember watching Dr. Venzke teaching gastrointestinal anatomy where, usually once during each lecture, he would walk out among the students and sit down next to a student. He would then proceed to speak one-on-one with the student about gut anatomy. The fact that it was clear he cared about the student with whom he was speaking is probably what made it work. It provided a brief respite from the lecture format and, except for the student he was talking with, the students enjoyed it.

Several sources advise varying the mode of presentation4,8,4,5; Fredrick recommended an "energy shift" about every 20 min5. There are many ways to create an energy shift during a lecture. In veterinary school, one of the easiest ways is to bring in a real-life clinical case1 or even something in the news that relates to the current topic3. Another possibility is to briefly go live to an interesting website that is relevant to your subject. Personally, my choice would be to break the lecture with a question or a series of questions.

Rhetorical questions are asked all the time during class, but probably do little to break the anonymity. Another way to ask questions is to use thought-provoking multiple-choice questions (some might consider this an oxymoron) over material you just covered and have the students vote on the correct answer. If you do not get a response, persist and have a second vote5. A third possibility is a question directed at a student or a group of students. This would seem like a good method to actively involve the students, but how do we do this without embarrassing them in such a large class?

Several authors offer suggestions on how to question a student without undo embarrassment. Most suggest that allowing the student to pass is more humane. Several of these authors suggested directing a question at a small group of students and give them a couple of minutes to come up with their answer. Nagle7 referred to a colleague of his who begins each class by putting up six or seven names. Then, when he asks a question, he will call on one of those specific students whose name is on the blackboard. Frederick5 suggests posing a question to the class and then asking three students sitting next to each other to discuss it and come up with an answer. He allows them (and hopefully the class) 5 minutes to explore the question. This seems like an excessively long down time for the class, but perhaps a combination of these strategies with less time to come up with an answer might be effective with our veterinary students.

After evaluating these different methods for using directed questions, I intend to try the following. At the beginning of each class, I will post 10 names from which I will "randomly draw" (predetermined ahead of time) names during the class. Then, once or twice during the class, I will project a question and ask one of the students to give me the correct answer. This student will then have 30 seconds and may consult with the students on either side of him or her (sort of like "call a friend" on the Millionaire TV show).

The overriding goal of teaching any size class is to have the students take active responsibility for their part in the learning process. A large class simply puts more obstacles in the way of achieving this goal. Personalizing a lecture for 135 veterinary students is a difficult charge, but any attempt we make will be appreciated by the students1. Using non-directed and directed questions should be a useful strategy to get student participation in a large class. In a survey at the University of California Santa Barbara, over 80% of the students surveyed by the Office of Instructional Consultation in 1992 felt that the instructor affected the quality of classes more than did class size11. Although many faculty tend to teach the way they were taught, the times they are a changing. New technology and new teaching strategies are available to us if we just have the courage to try them.

  1. Jaeger LA and D Kochevar: "Teaching large classes in veterinary medicine" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 5:178.2002.
  2. Cleveland L.G.: "That?s not a large class; It?s a small town: How do I manage?" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 5:16.2002.
  3. Teaching large class sections. Center for Excellance in Learning and Teaching. The Pennsylvania State University, 1997. http://www.psu.edu/celt/PSU/large.html
  4. Porter ME and CA Stanley: "Summary of key concepts for teaching large classes" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 5:324.2002.
  5. Frederick, PJ: "Student involvement: Active learning in large classes" in Weiner, MG (ed): Teaching Large Classes Well. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 32:45.1987.
  6. Brooks, RP: "Dealing with details in a large class" in Weiner, MG (ed): Teaching Large Classes Well. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 32:39.1987.
  7. Nagle R: "Transforming the horde" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 17:315.2002.
  8. Iverson BL: "What my students have taught me" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 13:269.2002.
  9. Hoyle JR: "Making large classes small through creative teaching" in Stanley CA and ME Porter (eds): Engaging Large Classes. Bolton: Anker Publidhing Company, Inc. Example 6:186.2002.
  10. Badgett S, R Johnson and S Nicholson: "Assessing the lower division experience: Surveys of student and faculty opinion." Office of Instructional Consultation. University of California, Santa Barbara. February, 1992.