Learning and Teaching

Scaling up assignments and activities in classes with growing enrollment

March 25, 2024

Does scaling up class size mean that student experience goes down? These SFU instructors are finding ways to ensure the answer is "no."

During these challenging budgetary times, many instructors are being asked to deliver courses to class sizes that are larger than what they have previously taught. This can cause concern around issues such as increased instructor workload or risks to the integrity of course assignments or assessments.

Instructors share how they have worked to preserve student interaction, flexibility and sense of community when faced with the challenge of teaching in a large class. Though their approaches vary, all report one common step: identifying what is most important for their students' learning.

Creating and managing small group activities  

For business lecturer Matt Martell, increasing his course, BUS 202 from 60 students to 200 students meant rethinking the logistics of facilitating and assessing group work. His solution combined Canvas, smartphones and flipchart paper.

“I have found that breaking the students up into small groups so they can teach each other is much more effective from a learning standpoint than me just lecturing them the whole time. This was easier to do in a small class, but I found a way to recreate this in a large lecture. First, I break the class into three ghost tutorials to identify who will be leading the small group discussion that week. I also assign the students their groups so everyone knows where they need to be. Most of the discussions take place in the lecture around the large sticky notes placed around the room, with a select few presenting to the class. At the end of the activity, the leaders take photos of their group’s discussion notes and upload that to Canvas, which I use to assess the quality of the groups’ participation. There are quite a few moving parts, but it has been great to see how engaged the students are by these small group presentations and discussions—I provide a very small number of marks for this activity but still the attendance rate is very high each week.”

Business lecturer Simon Ford also wanted to find a way to keep group work as an ongoing part of his growing class, BUS 240 Introduction to Innovation—but the approach he took was quite different.

“My class went from about 40 students to about 170. It’s important for our course that students engage in small group activities throughout the class but do so with different people because getting diverse perspective is a core part of innovation. To make that happen I assigned the class seating. Students were a little hesitant at first, they aren’t used to being forced to sit in a certain spot and with new people, but I simply explained why it matters and they got on board. I think the fact that my attendance rate is typically 90% to 95% speaks to the fact that it’s working.”

Keeping that community feeling  

For urban studies and gender, sexuality and women’s studies lecturer Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, one of her biggest concerns in scaling her GSWS 204 class from 40 to 60 students was that the larger scale could undermine the sense of community and intimacy. She addressed this challenge by breaking her class down into smaller parts.

“Instead of teaching one three-hour class as had been scheduled, I divided the class into three smaller groups, and basically lead three discussion sections back-to-back. This worked because the face-to-face portion of the class was scaled back to only the interactive parts, and the content that I removed to make that happen was delivered instead via recorded lectures. I also split up the Canvas discussion board into these same three groups so that the students were only interacting online with people in their 20-person groups. I was happy with the results, I could see more connections happen between students and I got to know them a bit better than I would have otherwise."

Fostering student-led learning in a large lab class

Biology lecturers Megan Barker and Agata Becalska wanted to engage students in BIO 101, a class of up to 500 students, in hands on experience doing original research, or Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE). Their solution centred on prioritizing feedback over content delivery and reimagining their roles as instructors. 

“We don’t want our students to think that science is about memorizing facts because the complicated part of science is not measuring data or following protocol, it is designing a research question and defining what we actually want to test. Our students design and lead experiments and that is possible in a class of this scale because instead of focusing on facts, class time is used for providing students’ feedback on their research projects. This means that we have to give up on teaching them certain lab skills, and we have to give up control over the projects and that’s okay because we've decided that's not the focus of this class,” says Becalska.

According to Barker, an important part of facilitating group projects in a class of this size is anticipating her students’ stuck points and getting ahead of them. “There are students that will always have panicked questions, but my goal is reduce that from 40% to 5% and I do that by setting group norms early on, flagging to teaching assistants where the trouble spots are in the projects and preparing them to support those.”

Barker notes that, from this perspective, having a large class is actually an asset.

“We could not run this in a small section the same way because they need the community around them, for feedback and collegiality. If you're going to do a poster session and there's only one other poster that's not a poster session. There is a power in leveraging the community in front of you to deepen and enrich the learning process."

If you would like support scaling up any element of your course, visit the Centre for Educational Excellence's Connect with Us page to book a consultation.