Useful links

'Teaching large classes' – resources and strategies from The Schreyer...

If you are in a position where you are planning to teach an online course to a large cohort of students enrolled in your institution, there are a number of principles and practices which need to be followed in order to ensure that the students get the best possible learning experience.

As noted in the 'Introduction' to this course, the definition of a 'large' class will vary from institution to institution. We would suggest that if your course has over 50 participants, the advice in this screen may be useful for helping you to 'scale up' your teaching methods. The core advice in this screen is not intended to cater for massive open online courses (MOOCs), which can have thousands of participants, but you can find further information on MOOCs in the pods to the right of the screen.

As noted in the 'Introduction' to this course, the definition of a 'large' class will vary from institution to institution. We would suggest that if your course has over 50 participants, the advice in this section may be useful for helping you to 'scale up' your teaching methods. The core advice in this section is not intended to cater for massive open online courses (MOOCs), which can have thousands of participants, but you can find further information on MOOCs in the pods at the end of the section.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online courses designed for large-scale interactive participation and open access.

What challenges are involved
in teaching large online classes?

Large online classes present a number of challenges, including:

  • The potential for students to feel that they are isolated or lacking a personalised learning experience
  • The need to establish clear deadlines to enable students with a diverse range of personal circumstances to manage their time
  • Potential difficulty in managing a high volume of assessments.

personalised learning

The individualised shaping of teaching and learning environments to meet the learning needs of students.

These problems can also affect smaller online classes, but they are particularly apparent when dealing with a large number of course participants. They all contribute to one of the most important challenges facing teachers of large online classes – how to manage the increased volume of interactions generated by a vastly increased number of students asking questions, having technical difficulties or requiring some other form of individual attention.

Take a moment to consider these challenges and record some initial thoughts on how you might address them in your online teaching.

In the following activity, consider the question and make a note of your thoughts in the space provided.

Video interview

Two lecturers from the University of Queensland, Associate Professor Carl...

Useful links

The experiences described in the 'Video interview' pod above demonstrate that...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Being a successful online teacher
UNIT | 2 : Building an effective learning community
PAGE TITLE | Organising large online classes

In order to effectively scale learning activities for a large number of students in an online course, Guàrdia, Maina & Sangrà (2013) have recently developed a series of design principles based on researching what students consider critical in an online course with a large number of students.

In the following activity, click on each tab to find out more about Guàrdia, Maina & Sangrà's design principles for effective large online courses, and the strategies you can use to put these principles into action.

Key terms

Personal learning environments (PLE): Digital applications that help...

Useful links

Tips and strategies for using peer assessment:

Design principle 1 of 10: Competence-based design approach


Focus on 'outcomes of learning' and address 'what students are expected to do' (Guárdia, Maina & Sangrá, 2013; Richards and Rodgers, 2001), thereby gauging demonstrated competence of the learning outcomes. This can be accomplished through situated learning activities such as simulations, case studies, and project-based learning.

Design principle 2 of 10: Learning plan and clear orientation


Planning is crucial in an online course with a large number of students with diverse backgrounds and experience. Provide the students with a detailed learning plan for the course, which includes tasks, assignments, milestones, deadlines, and a suggested pace for learning.

Design principle 3 of 10: Collaborative learning


'Foster a collaborative approach by designing and promoting learning activities and tasks in which collaboration is a must or an added value' (Guárdia, Maina & Sangrá, 2013).

Design principle 4 of 10: Student empowerment


Use strategies such as personal learning journals (i.e. blogs) and collaborative writing assignments (i.e. wikis) that motivate students to become active participants in the establishment of their own individual goals and personal learning trajectory. Encouraging students to regulate, pace, and assess themselves, in combination with peer assessment and support, will help to promote students' active participation and engagement.

Design principle 5 of 10: Social networking


Provide guidance on social networking tools and strategies that help students create their own personal learning environment (PLE) with content aggregators, mashups, personal blogs, and learning communities so that they can keep track and reflect upon their course learning and accomplishments.

Design principle 6 of 10: Peer assistance


There will be limited opportunities for teacher assistance in a high enrolment online course so provide the students with tools and guidance on how to provide each other with assistance.

The term 'paragogy' refers to 'peer production environments including the co-creation of ad-hoc spaces for dialogue and support' (Guàrdia, Maina & Sangrà, 2013; Corneli & Danoff, 2011).

Design principle 7 of 10: Quality assessment criteria for knowledge creation and generation


'Differentiate "brainstorming" and "exploratory" tasks from final activities' (Guàrdia, Maina & Sangrà, 2013). Provide assessment rubrics to guide the promotion of critical thinking.

Design principle 8 of 10: Interest groups


Encourage discussion in small groups and provide opportunities for such exchange. Guide students on how to arrange groups and subgroups according to their interest.

Design principle 9 of 10: Self assessment and peer feedback


Create precise criteria and explanations to build trust in self- and peer- assessment activities. You can provide rubrics, scales and model or instructive answers to support students. Encourage students to use blogs or e-portfolios to collect evidence of their learning and to help them reflect on their learning (see the 'Useful links' pod to the right).

Design principle 10 of 10: Media-technology-enhanced learning


Provide students with choice on how they complete their assignments. Encourage students to try new digital technologies and applications using interactive and audiovisual content. Provide guidance on how to determine best media choices according to the objectives and required tasks of the assignment.

Adapted from Guàrdia et al (2013). Used with permission.

An online course with a large number of students integrates the connectivity of social networking, the input of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources. Perhaps most importantly, however, a large online course builds on the active engagement of the students who self-organise their participation according to learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests.

Portfolio activity

Brainstorm your own list of teaching strategies based on whether you will be...

Key terms

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are large-scale, open access...

Video interview

How different is the experience of teaching a large online course, such...

Useful links

'Special Issue on Massive Open Online Courses' from the Journal of Online...

In the following activity you will be presented with a series of strategies for designing and organising an online course. Decide whether each strategy is more effective in a large-size course (e.g. with over 50 enrolments) or a small-size course. Click on the strategy at the top and then click the column in which you think it belongs.
You will now be presented with a series of strategies for designing and organising an online course. Decide whether each strategy is more effective in a large-size course (e.g. with over 50 enrolments) or a small-size course. Then, continue on to check if you are correct.


  • Group assignments: Ask your class to collaborate on projects in small groups. Inform them that you will be assessing both group work and individuals' contributions
  • Study groups for discussions: Ask students to conduct, in groups of up to 20 members, threaded discussions (to be observed by you) and then post a summary to a class-wide discussion area.
  • Anonymous online polls: Conduct a poll to establish the class point of view on a particular topic
  • Individual assignments: Arrange for individual assignments to be peer assessed by up to three participants. Ask each participant to peer assess two/three other assignments.
  • Regular individual feedback: Provide each student with regular, ongoing feedback about their progress in the course
  • Peer review: Create a rubric for students to assess one another's work.
  • Video lectures: Create a series of short video lectures that can be posted to the course LMS/VLE.
  • Student presentations: Ask one or two students to provide weekly synchronous or asynchronous presentations to the class.
  • Individual discussion threads: Set a discussion forum assignment where every course member must lead a discussion thread and contribute to a specified number of other members' threads
  • Student home pages: Ask each student to construct a home page in the course learning management system (LMS)/virtual learning environment (VLE) and then have each student post comments on at least two other students' pages.

Now check to see if you are correct.

Correctly categorised strategies

Strategies for a large online class

  • Anonymous online polls
  • Study groups for discussions
  • Individual assignments
  • Peer review
  • Video lectures

Strategies for a small online class

  • Individual discussion threads
  • Student home pages
  • Group assignments
  • Regular individual feedback
  • Student presentations

Useful links


Two lecturers from the University of Queensland, Associate Professor Carl Reidsema and Associate Professor Lydia Kavanagh, had been frustrated both by the lack of lecture space and by poor attendance at sessions on campus.

They decided to redesign their teaching, so that students could view their traditional lectures outside of the classroom (via vodcast), and then focus on more active and collaborative tasks in class.

Consider the following case study in which they describe how they teach practical engineering to 600 students at the same time by 'flipping' the classroom.

What does 'flipping' the classroom mean?

Associate Professor Carl Reidsema
Director of Teaching and Learning (Engineering), University of Queensland

So flipping the classroom to me, really is revisiting an age-old practice of getting students to prepare before they come to university. It's something I did way back when, and it prepared me to be able to ask questions of the lecture. You know, the lecture-based approach. So primarily, it's that. It's encouraging students to prepare, to be motivated, to engage, participate, to own their learning.

Associate Professor Lydia Kavanagh
Director of First Year Teaching (Engineering), University of Queensland

So flipping the classroom to me, is any time that you, as the coordinator of the learning activities, are not doing the didactic lecturing. Any time that you take yourself off that stage and you become a facilitator for the students' learning. And, really making a lot of use of collaborative learning. So the students are in flat-floor rooms. Really important. The space is really important. Flat-floor rooms where they sit at round tables or where they can collaborate, and where you are facilitating them actually learning.

What motivated you to 'flip' the classroom?

Associate Professor Carl Reidsema
Director of Teaching and Learning (Engineering), University of Queensland

So we ended up with no lecture theatres, so we couldn't do the same old thing which wasn't working anyway. We had, however had, I had a conversation with a Deputy Vice Chancellor about using an exhibition hall, and I was just going to do another lecture with 1200 students, because that would have been something I'd been familiar with, because I could get 1400 in this space. It was used for other purposes. It wasn't a teaching space. So when we got the first session, Lydia had no lecture theatre, I had set up some pre-ground with the executive, and I said, 'Well, why don't we do it in the exhibition hall?' and she went, 'Oh my God. You're kidding me, right?' and she said, 'I couldn't possibly do that,' and I said, 'Well, why don't we do half at a time, you know 600?' 'I can do that.'

So we sort of did the 600, and we said, 'Well, how is it going to be done?' It's not a lecture space, poor acoustics, it's a gymnasium primarily, flat floor space. So we got in 67 tables of nine students, laid them all out, did our best to get the acoustics, maybe, up to basic scratch, and ran workshops. And so we planned out a series of ten workshops. So back to back, hour to hour, so 600 an hour. We got all 1200 students doing active learning in the first session of the course. That required us to take the lecture that we had previously done, or some of the lectures, redesign them on the fly, create a podcast upfront, some slides to conduct or facilitate the workshop with 600 students and some activity templates, so structured activities they could work through in pairs or as a table, and then build that into assessment.

So we did that over a period of about ten weeks in the first session of this year, and then we decided we'd keep doing that because we got 95% attendance or more for the entire ten weeks, and we saw, I assumed it would work. I wasn't sure how well it would work, but it worked really well. It was myself, Lydia, the two academics, and three postgrad project leaders or tutors, for 600. So about 120 to one student-staff ratio. Students were engaged, students were working, students were showing up and they enjoyed it.

What are the potential problems involved in 'flipping' the classroom and how can you overcome them?

Associate Professor Carl Reidsema
Director of Teaching and Learning (Engineering), University of Queensland

Primarily, they go to how we organise ourselves in the institution. Research is highly valued, researchers get promoted, researchers end up being the management and the leadership. Consequently, education or the teaching side tends to lag behind. Regardless of what people say, that's just the way it is. So it becomes an issue of workload and distribution of work.

In terms of flipped classroom, in terms of innovating in the curriculum at this kind of scale, it's important to get collaboration with people outside the faculty or outside the schools, outside your discipline. I was lucky, I think, to come into a place where they wanted something to happen, and I just happened to be singing the right song for a couple of other people who were in the technology area. And they were looking for a win somewhere, and so we started working together, and providing innovative tools and innovative approaches to, you know, flipped-class technology, video-based learning, learning analytics, team-based peer review, algorithms and software to allocate students to teams based on competency and success factors. A lot of these things were happening part and parcel as I was coming on board, so I was able to extract a lot of support.

Associate Professor Lydia Kavanagh
Director of First Year Teaching (Engineering), University of Queensland

One of the main problems that I have found in flipping the classroom is getting students to own that learning. Now, in any cohort, and I have 1200, you have the whole spectrum of attitudes to learning, and whilst you'll have 50% who are absolutely there and will just take up every little bit of opportunity for learning that you give them. Any avenue, anything you post online, any extra reading, they will be on top of it and they will enjoy it and if you don't give it to them they will ask for more. You have 30% who will just do the bare minimum, and then you have 20%, and we're talking, again, about first-year students, that just are coasting, and they really haven't said, 'This is what I want.'

I should also add that in engineering a lot of our first-year students come along not knowing what engineering is about, and they've taken engineering because their Career Guidance Counsellor has said, 'Well, you're good at maths and physics. Engineering.' Or their parents have said, 'Uncle Tim is an engineer. You'd be a good engineer too.' So we have 20%, I would say, who have no idea what engineering is about, and of that 20% we will necessarily lose 10% because they have no idea what it is about.

How do we overcome that? Well, I actually accept that there's going to be 50% who are going to excel, and they are going to be fantastic engineers, and they'll never put a foot wrong. All you're doing really is facilitating them going through the course. The 30-odd per cent who will just sort of get through, that's fine, and you can fire them email warnings, and there's a bit of peer pressure that comes in and that sort of stuff.

And then that other 10%, and I'm talking first year again so we've lost 10% to attrition, what we have to do is we have to actually look at the learning objectives and the stuff we're putting online. Is it essential? Is it an essential part of the course? Is it something that they won't pick up if they come to the active learning session and they learn collaboratively? Because obviously we want to say, 'Some people wouldn't learn that way very well anyway, and it's much better for them to come along to the active session and work with their peers, and they'll pick it up.' But maybe some of this stuff that's online is absolutely essential, and that's when we pair it with assessment. So that's when we say, 'Okay, here are these online modules, and there's a quiz afterwards.' And the quiz might only be worth a nominal 2% or 3%, but it's there, and it is some assessment, and so assessment will drive their learning.

More often than I would like, just the sheer volume of students can slow the system down and bog it down, but that hasn't stopped us. I think we're being bold, and we are constantly evaluating what we're doing and trying to improve it. And we have a great team of people at the University of Queensland who are helping us overcome the obstacles of having so many students.

Does teaching such a large unit of undergraduates limit or widen the students' options?

Associate Professor Lydia Kavanagh
Director of First Year Teaching (Engineering), University of Queensland

In terms of giving them a voice, in terms of them feeling like they're connected, there are so many different methods that we use to have their voice heard, if you like. So, we have a lot of different methods of feedback, and we are always feeding their feedback back to them and telling them how they're actually changing the course. In some of those big, 600-student, sort of lectures, we have a virtual whiteboard, and the students can, it's like a Wordle, so the more a particular phrase gets posted to the website, the bigger it appears on the virtual whiteboard. So the students can actually see what everybody is talking about and what everybody is feeling, and they can see there are popular misconceptions up there, and that works really well.

I guess what I want to say in answer to the question about, 'Is there anything that limits us?' the answer is no. We try things out. They might not work out the first time we do them. We don't give up if we see that there's value, and the students value it, and it's helping their learning. We improve it, and we listen, and we look around, and we talk to colleagues across the world. You know, internationally and nationally, and we hear what they're doing and bring that on board as well. But no, we haven't found anything limiting us.

What advice would you give to a lecturer who is thinking about using a similar technique?

Associate Professor Carl Reidsema
Director of Teaching and Learning (Engineering), University of Queensland

It's important to advertise what you're doing to people who may have the money and the support for you, because a lot of people have no idea what's going on at the coalface. So that means possibly stepping outside your comfort zone or your skill zone or finding somebody who can help you film. You know, create an advertisement, or communicate what's going on, and disseminate that out to people who may go, you know, 'Oh, this is a really good idea.'

Associate Professor Lydia Kavanagh
Director of First Year Teaching (Engineering), University of Queensland

The number one bit of advice for lecturers who are thinking about using a similar technique to what we do is that it's not a quick fix. I cannot say that enough. I get a lot of queries from people within my own institution, and without actually, who are looking at this as some sort of method to reduce their hours for teaching, to put things online so they never have to address them again, and it's just not true. You put that stuff online, but there is so much facilitation and follow-up that you need to do to capitalise on what you've done. And the students, if you put something online, why would they not be doing a MOOC? Because those things are online, and they get no face-to-face. What an institution, what yourself as an academic working with an institution within a degree programme, offer, is, 'We've put the content online, and you get to come and workshop it and apply it and get assistance, actually, on campus.' And that is more work, you know, it's at least the same work, if not more work, and the coordination of it is a lot of work. So the first piece of advice is, 'Don't go in thinking that it's a quick fix and that it's actually going to reduce your teaching time.'

The other main piece of advice that I'd give to people who are thinking about bringing these sorts of teaching methods into their degree programmes and courses is to think really carefully about what the students need to learn, and to think about how they might learn it, and to give them a few opportunities within what you're offering to learn it via different pathways. And to think about, once you've thought about the learning objectives and the range of ways that you can get it across, to then think about the assessment, obviously, because assessment will drive, to a fair degree, what they're actually learning.

Useful links

Key terms

Personal learning environments (PLE): Digital applications that help students take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for students to: set their own learning goals, manage their learning, both content and process, and communicate with others in the process of learning.

Aggregator: A web-based application that aggregates a specific type of information from multiple online sources (e.g. a personal news feed from multiple online newspapers).

Mashup: A web-based application that allows you to combine multiple forms of data (e.g. the combination of images, text, music, and audio to create a digital story).

Useful links


Duration: 40 minutes

Brainstorm your own list of teaching strategies based on whether you will be teaching a small or large online course. The following websites can be used to provide you with additional ideas.

Online teaching activity index

This website from the Illinois Online Network provides an extensive list of categorised online teaching activities:

Best practice models for e-learning

This website from Staffordshire University has a number of examples of online teaching activities:

A rich source of activities for promoting active and interactive online learning is Gilly Salmon's (2013) E-tivities. The Key to Active Online Learning.

Use the attached document to record your ideas or complete the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio.

Key terms

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are large-scale, open access, online courses that are (currently) typically free. Many MOOCs are based on a community learning model, where students can contribute course content and/or act as peer markers/graders. A MOOC 'may share some of the conventions of an ordinary course, such as a pre-defined timeline and weekly topics for consideration' (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, and Cormier, 2010).

cMOOCs are based on 'connectivist' pedagogy. Connectivism seeks to explain how people learn in decentralised online networks. Key principles of a cMOOC are that learning is distributed across the network and that the course will promote learner autonomy, openness and connectedness/interaction. Content is co-created and shared. The MOOC convener is a co-learner.

The 'x' in xMOOC stands for 'extended'. xMOOCs have extended the original cMOOC principle of free, open access to attract large numbers of learners from across the globe. Typically, but not uniformly, xMOOCs are offered on a single designated platform and adopt an instructivist pedagogy. Learning is centralised around the teacher and a given set of resources, such as short videos, quizzes and automated online assessment. Whilst access is open and free, the course materials are licensed.

There now also exist a whole variety of 'hybrid' MOOCs, which have adapted and mixed elements of cMOOCs and xMOOCs. One example is a pMOOC, which in some contexts might focus on project-based learning, or in another context on personalised learning.


How different is the experience of teaching a large online course, such as a MOOC, to teaching a 'normal' online course for enrolled students at your university? Consider the following interviews, in which a series of practitioners discuss their experiences and recommendations.

What are the learning opportunities for students and teachers in a very large online course such as a MOOC?

Professor Ray Schroeder
Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning, University of Illinois Springfield

MOOCs create a wonderful new opportunity for all of us in higher education. They're not the same as the smaller courses, which we're comfortable with teaching. On the other hand, though, they provide us with an opportunity to bring together students from different cultures, from different parts of the world, to collaborate, to communicate, to learn together online. So there are unique opportunities in these very large courses for student learning, that we just simply will never have in the very small university-based courses.

Dr. Yishay Mor
Independent Education Consultant

I think when we talk about MOOCs we need to first acknowledge that there are different kinds of MOOCs. So there's what's now usually called the xMOOCs. You know the kind of MOOCs that you get through Coursera, Udacity, edX, which actually tend to be quite short, take a fairly conservative pedagogical approach, so you'd have some materials, whether they're videos or papers to read, and then a quiz. Fairly straightforward, in my eyes not necessarily very interesting from a pedagogical point of view. But it's a kind of way for educators to perhaps provide a taster for a paid course to attract students into their subject area or institution. From the learner's point of view, again, the idea of a taster is that it gives you the opportunity to engage with a subject matter, with a content area, and kind of gauge whether you're interested in developing your interest further.

Then there are the cMOOCs. You know, there are the more connectivist MOOCs. And recently we're seeing pMOOCs, as in project-based MOOCs and other varieties as well. And these are maybe more interesting because they provide a richer learning experience. They also, from the educator's point of view, give you an opportunity to experiment in different approaches to online teaching.

What are the learning challenges for a teacher who is running a large online course such as a MOOC?

Professor Steve Wheeler
Associate Professor of Learning Technology, University of Plymouth

I think if you try and go it alone you're going to be in trouble. MOOCs, like any online programmes these days, are teamwork. It's all about being part of a team. I think it's almost impossible, if not impossible, to run a successful online course totally on your own without technical support, without admin support, without support from pedagogues and people who are specialists in the teaching techniques; people who are specialists in the theories behind it. And specialists also in developing the programmes, the course materials, the activities, and so on. And the possibilities behind MOOCs. So I think people who want to run MOOCs, I think they have to find a good team.

Professor Sarah H. Kagan
Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania

One is scale, because you're really talking, in some ways, about teaching a town or a city, that's the scale of these things. And the other piece is technology. I think that we're still working out the platform issues and the intuitive use of platforms to create as seamless a learning and teaching environment as possible. So when you're talking about scale, I think that the challenge is to help people feel like they're right next to you. 'You're with me in the room.' And that's where I think that embedding webcasts and other live opportunities as well as videos that are much more conversational and less lecture-like can be very helpful in scaling that city down to an individual conversation.

What advice would you give to a teacher responsible for a large online course?

Well, given that I never really imagined myself being an online educator, the first thing I would say is, don't have a lot of preconceptions about what that role will be. I think the second thing that I'd emphasise even more is, don't rely heavily on the model of the tangible, physical classroom. Think about your pedagogy, think about your philosophy, and imagine reaching individual learners and being comfortable moving from learner to teacher and back again.

I'd also say that, don't let your level of comfort with technology put you off becoming an online educator. Many people are perhaps anxious, 'How will I do this?' If you can teach, you can also learn the technology. You have to give yourself permission to believe that you can do that, and not let the technology be a barrier, and there you're role-modelling what your learners need to understand about themselves, and that is that the technology is not a barrier to your learning, it's simply a tool that you're using to facilitate learning. And learning itself is an innate human process.

Useful links