Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

Active learning is “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes” (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 2). Examples include team debates, think-pair-share, team-based learning, and using clickers or other technology to provide opportunities for discussion (for more on active learning, see our Active Learning Tip Sheet).

Photo taken at the back of a 200-seat lecture hall looking toward the front white board.
One of Waterloo’s large classrooms

But what happens when there are 300 students in your classroom? Many of these techniques scale to larger settings although they require additional planning. To help with designing and running these activities, I think about four design elements. For each element, I ask myself a set of questions to help plan the activity.

Alignment: How does the activity support my course outcomes?

  • How does this activity relate to what I am trying to achieve: in this class; in this topic module; and in this course?
  • What is the purpose of the activity? (Examples: student engagement in lectures, formative feedback for students and/or the instructor, summative assessment for students)
  • How does this activity relate to the intended outcomes of the course?
  • Is this activity part of a larger activity? (Example: small group activity related to an on-going case study in the course)

Context: What factors will influence the activity’s design?

  • Does the space (e.g., classroom, online) I am using work? What changes might be needed?
  • How many students do I have? How many TAs?
  • Who else should be involved in this activity? (Example: In a multi-instructor course, should this be something all instructors do or just your section?)
  • What are my students’ expectations of the course? How might they react to this activity?

Roles: What are the various tasks that need to happen to complete the activity successfully?

  • What is my role in this activity? How comfortable am I with that role?
  • What are my expectations of the students during the activity?
  • Who will run this activity?
  • What do people (students, instructors, others) need to do before, during, and after the activity?
  • How do I manage the activity? (Example: In a think-pair-share with 300 students, how will you signal it is time to end the share part?)

Support: What resources are needed and what is available?

  • Can I run this activity on my own?
  • If I need others’ support, what will they do? Do their skills match the need? (Example: Do you need TAs at class to support group conversations? If so, do you need to provide some training related to moderating a discussion?)
  • How could technology support or hinder this activity?
  • Who could help me with the design, implementation and/or debriefing of the activity?
  • If I identify a resource gap, how do I get extra resources?

When I started teaching at Waterloo, my first classroom was DC 1350, a lecture hall that seats about 250 people. Having previously taught in the college sector with small classes of 20-50 students, I found that first lecture overwhelming. Some of my tried-and-true teaching strategies weren’t working. Eventually, I found one that worked. I called it a “brain break” and I asked students to chat for a minute or two part way through the lecture. They could talk about the course or not. I simply wanted them to have a little time to think about what they had been learning for the past 20 minutes. It also gave me a chance to gauge how students were doing as I roamed around the class catching snippets of their conversations.

If you are new to active learning in large classes, identify just a couple of activities that you want to try.  If you are looking for ideas, check out Collaborative Learning Techniques by Elizabeth Barkley, Clair Major and Patricia Cross (2014).  They list several activities that scale well to large class settings (see Exhibit Intro 3.3 on page 148). Another great resource is Silberman (1996), which shares 101 active learning strategies. A personal favourite is “Think-Pair-Share” – students think about a problem/question/scenario and jot down their answers, then they turn to a neighbour, form a pair and discuss their responses, finally, a few of the pairs share their ideas with the class. It works well in all class sizes, although you definitely need a good method to bring the pairs’ conversations to an end!


Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A Handbook for college faculty (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. American Society for Quality Higher Education Brief, 2(4), August.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Published by

Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

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