What does a large lecture class look like online?

We’re all familiar with the large lecture hall with fixed tiered seating and a pitched floor descending to the front of the room where the professor stands, perhaps on a stage behind a lectern, with a microphone in hand and a large projection screen framing the front of the room. The room is large, making it difficult to see the students in the back, much less get to know their names. The professor may use clickers or polls to increase participation, but the design of the room primarily encourages dialogic exchanges between professor and individual students, and perhaps even straight exposition-style lectures with little to no student participation.

The good news about adapting a large lecture course to an online learning environment is that you will still be able to lecture—albeit in a different way—but you will also have increased opportunities for student engagement—with you, with course materials, and with each other. Online you will find that there is no back of the classroom and your learning space is no longer constricted by fixed seating. You will be able to see all of your students and their names up close on the computer screen, and you may even find increased participation, as students in asynchronous activities (such as online discussions) will have opportunities to think through their responses before engaging. In addition, a large and mostly anonymous online gathering of numerous students can easily be broken down into small groups, facilitating much more active engagement—with one another and with you—whether in breakout rooms or other versions of small group collaboration. More intensive engagement in this manner builds students’ sense of belonging, which in turn leads to increased learning (Frisby et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2010).

What are the essential components?

When moving a large lecture course online it’s useful to think about the movement to the online space as what one educator refers to as adaptation—a new kind of classroom with new affordances that requires a different approach—rather than as translation from the physical classroom (Supiano, 2020). The goals of content delivery, student engagement, and assessment can still be successfully achieved online, and with careful planning you can adapt your large lecture course into an engaging learning environment. This adaptation may lead to new habits of mind for you and the students.

How can you accomplish your goals at a distance?

When students take large lecture classes on campus, they may feel anonymous in the classroom but they are still in close proximity to their classmates and professor and have opportunities to interact with their peers.  Moving a large lecture course online can lead to disengagement and isolation among students, a phenomenon that can be proactively addressed through strategies to foster a sense of belonging and community. While the potential for positive outcomes are real, our large lecture classes don’t automatically become cozier learning spaces online in which everyone is on the “front row” to develop new cognitive skills. Work has to be done to structure the online environment so that it fosters community and engages students as active participants in the learning process. This work requires you to understand and be comfortable with the teaching tools available in the online space and then intentionally design for the student experience—in particular those related to “shrinking” the class. Because going online eliminates the physical barriers to active learning that exist in most large lecture halls, this “shrinking” is fairly straightforward—and once the class is “cut down to size,” most of the techniques related to such things as active learning, student engagement, and inclusivity in smaller classrooms will apply to your large lecture. 

How can you build community in a large class setting?

Despite its potential to experientially shrink the class for your students, there is also the potential risk in large online courses to further anonymize the student experience—hiding or helping your students to hide in a virtual space. To combat this, design for community by promoting peer interaction and regular faculty presence in the student experience. Fostering a sense of community in online spaces is strongly correlated with increased learning (Sun and Chen, 2016; Chaffin and Jacobson, 2017; Sadera, et al, 2009)

Incorporate small groups:

  • On the formal side, consider using Canvas to create small groups of 3-5 students that will operate for the length of the class or a given module. These groups can be used as study or discussion groups, teams to collaborate on specific activities or projects (e.g., collaborating to create an annotated bibliography), teams for peer mentorship (e.g., reading paper drafts or lab reports and offering feedback), and can even be used in formal assessment (e.g., small-group assignments, quizzes, or projects). Regularly interacting with the same set of peers will increase both belonging and accountability. For those interested, the Team-Based Learning approach is a well-developed, evidence-based approach that operates well in the online context (Clark, et al, 2020).
  • More informally, there are opportunities for spontaneous small-group creation and interaction such as automatically-created small groups in Zoom breakout sessions or asynchronous activities in Canvas that require multiple rounds of interaction (e.g., a consensus-building discussion board). Not only do these opportunities offer the chance for students to engage with their peers, but that interaction takes place among a limited set of students, and the size of that set functions as the de facto class size.

Faculty Presence: Positive interaction with faculty goes a long way toward building community and a sense of belonging. Teaching Assistants can also play a key role in building community and belonging by communicating with students and amplifying students’ perception of faculty presence. Large classes make it difficult-to-impossible to have substantive one-on-one engagement with students, but there are still opportunities for faculty presence to be a regular part of the student experience. Key to faculty presence is creating regular, one-to-many forms of communication between the faculty (or TA) and students. For example,

  • Rather than trying to respond to each student on a given discussion board thread, write or record a message responding to the discussion board dialogue as a whole. Similarly, offer group feedback in the wake of a quiz or other assignment.
  • Make use of the Canvas announcement function to send both planned and spontaneous messages to the class. In these communications, recording video messages promotes the sense of faculty presence.
  • Whenever possible, use student names—even the perception of a professor knowing a student’s name in large lecture classes (e.g., because the professor is heard to call on other students by name) has a positive impact (Cooper, et al, 2017). Zoom sessions make this easy as student names are displayed.
  • Consistently visiting breakout rooms is another means of increasing faculty presence.

How can content be delivered effectively to achieve the course goals?

Although there is no “one right way” to deliver content in a large online course, there are some best practices to consider before developing your course content for an online environment.

Lectures: While it is possible to deliver lectures synchronously or asynchronously in an online course, it is recommended that, for most lectures, faculty pre-record them so that students can watch them on their own time and refer back to them as needed. For details on the nuts and bolts of delivering lectures asynchronously and synchronously in large classes check out this tip sheet on teaching large lectures remotely.

Just as in the face-to-face classroom, it is important to build in opportunities for students to actively engage with rather than merely listen to lectures. In the online space this means creatively linking lecture content to activities such as quizzes, discussions, case-studies, opportunities for reflection, and opportunities for discussion with peers. Such activities can be done in either the asynchronous or the synchronous setting.

  • Asynchronous Lectures: You can record lectures using a variety of free tools offered by Georgetown. Zoom and Panopto are the most popular ones, but other lecture formats include doing voiceovers on PowerPoint, creating downloadable podcast lectures, or writing text lectures, possibly with some graphics. Here are some general guidelines and good practices on how to record a lecture, where you will find detailed information about suggested length, the importance of writing a script, and how to maximize audio and video quality. The lecture can be interspersed with quiz questions to aid comprehension and engagement In addition to creating your own content, consider using existing content such as podcasts, TedTalks, and films.
  • Synchronous Lectures: You can still deliver live lectures to large groups of students online. Zoom can accommodate up to 300 attendees—or 500 upon request to zoom@georgetown.edu. Live lectures (as opposed to recorded ones) are an especially good option for time-sensitive material that may be obsolete the next time you teach the course. If you normally use PowerPoint or Google Slides as part of the lecture, you can continue to do so online by sharing your screen. These will of course not be visible, however, to anyone who’s attending via an audio call, so it’s important to ask students to attend with video if they can and also make your teaching materials available to students outside of the Zoom session. Since it is likely that not everyone will be able to see, be sure to say what’s on your slides. Similarly, recording and then posting a link to synchronous sessions will increase their accessibility for all students.
    • Collective or public annotation is an important activity in many classes. Zoom has a whiteboard function that you can use during an online session, which allows you and (if you like) students to make annotations visible to the whole class. Many instructors have likewise used Google Docs for collective or small group annotations, which can work particularly well when putting students into breakout rooms.
    • To read more about basic logistics and tips for making your live lectures more interactive, visit our Teaching Large Lectures Remotely tip sheet. If you want more information about using breakout rooms in Zoom for small-group work, click here.

Course Readings: An important affordance of online education is the availability of online texts, which tend to be significantly cheaper—an important issue related to inclusivity. Additionally, there is the wide variety of materials that can be linked to or embedded within Canvas pages. In transitioning to online, consider the following:

  • Along with assigning hard copies of textbooks, consider using a text that has an electronic version, which students can interact with by searching, annotating, and highlighting.
  • Consider Open-Education Resources (OER): OERcommons.org is a searchable database of readings, textbooks, integrated and interactive activities connected to the readings, all at no cost to you or the student.
  • Include links to searchable PDFs that are available through the library databases and consider using annotation tools such as Hypothes.is, which allows for students to collaboratively annotate webpages and PDFs.
  • Whenever possible, use hyperlinks in the syllabus (e.g., in the course schedule).

Accessibility and Inclusivity: There are other important issues related to access and inclusivity in addition to those already mentioned.

  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines should be followed whenever possible. These will help you design your course with variability and some flexibility in mind so you can reach all types of learners.
  • Check out this Tip Sheet on Accessibility in Virtual Learning Environments.
  • Remember that, while benefiting all learners, active learning techniques are particularly important for disadvantaged students.
  • More information on inclusivity in online spaces is available in CNDLS’s related guidebook and webinar.

How can assessment and grading best be done online?

In part for logistical reasons, many large lecture courses continue to rely heavily on exams that carry a lower burden of grading. The good news is that once again, there are specific affordances available for assessing students in the online world, some of which can improve feedback while saving time. Key to this is crafting rigorous assessments that promote academic integrity without inappropriately surveilling students.

Online Tests/Exams: If you are conducting online Tests/Exams, consider rewriting exams with questions that are largely “ungoogleable” and explicitly make exams open book/open source. For example, ask students to cross-reference information (e.g., “How does what we learned in unit A interact with or inform unit B?”). You can also ask students to defend a previous position they’ve taken in the course (i.e. refer back to previous assignments they’ve submitted), or to apply principles and content in understanding case studies ( e.g. “Using content learned in these lectures, explain what is happening in this specific case”).

Many of the assessments suggested here test for higher order learning goals (e.g. analyzing concepts and evaluating arguments). Do make sure to also include lower stakes assessments interspersed into the course focused on lower order learning goals (e.g. multiple choice quizzes that test for understanding during or immediately after an online lecture). Furthermore, if you are to assess the higher goals, consider spending synchronous class time practicing these skills so that students are primed for success and know what to expect.

Proctoring your quizzes and exams in Canvas offers a number of options. In particular, there is a timer option to set a time limit for students taking a test online. However, internet connectivity issues on the student side can cause premature submission and/or an incorrect rendering of time spent on the test. For this reason, we urge caution using the timer on Canvas exams.

Also, Canvas allows for automatic grading of some forms of quizzes and exams, and likewise allows you to provide instant feedback to students based on their selection.

Georgetown also subscribes to Proctorio, which integrates with Canvas and monitors students taking a test at a distance. There is both a learning curve to using Proctorio as well as substantive concerns regarding the appropriateness of student monitoring. For this reason, we recommend viewing our webinar for further information.

You might also consider partnering with students in the creation of exams or assigning alternate projects instead of exams. For example, you might have students:

  • Generate their own questions for the test and provide the answer key
  • Design case studies which could be used by practitioners in the relevant field
  • Write a paper and engage in peer review
  • Create a multimedia presentation to share synchronously or asynchronously

In Canvas, consider using the following for student submissions:

  • Zoom (GU Zoom support site) for presentations or brief explanations of work
  • Panopto (GU Panopto support site) for recorded presentations
  • VoiceThread (GU Tools & Services site) for asynchronous presentations by students and instructor with multiple feedback options
  • Pages in Canvas with student editing access using the Rich Content Editor
  • Webcam video recording via Rich Content Editor in Discussion boards
  • Turnitin for written submissions (plagiarism detection solution integrated with Canvas assignments)

Faculty Insight

Professor MC Chan and Kasey Christopher
BIOL103: Foundations of Biology I
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.

  • Asynchronous recorded lectures, with some content delivered by using scientifically accurate videos and podcasts on specific topics.
  • Synchronous class discussions, where we practice applying content and concepts from lectures in different case studies. Break-out rooms of 3-4 used to promote discussions.
  • Exams were open book and open note, but not open internet. Also, students with electronic books were not allowed to use search functions. Proctorio was not used.
  • Exam questions were similar to case studies used during synchronous course time.
  • Low-stakes weekly comprehension quizzes.
  • Research papers were peer-reviewed in Canvas. Editing required students to write a reply letter stating how they addressed the concerns of the reviewer (simplifies grading).

Professor Patrick Johnson
PHYS102: Principles of Physics II
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.

  • Recorded review sessions and office hours for students who could not attend these synchronous sessions. Students who could attend were asked to submit questions using the chat function in Zoom, which was then saved, allowing for annotation and search of individual Zoom sessions for the discussions on specific topics. This also allowed the professor to respond to student inquiries by pointing them to the relevant recorded office hours.
  • Removed the late penalty on assignments; thus allowing students to make their own schedule and complete the course at their own pace. Increased flexibility for all students without putting the burden on students to explain their needs
  • Reweighted mid-term exams from being equally-weighted to the highest scoring exam of any student counting for more and the lowest counting for less of the final course grade. This allowed students who struggled during part of the challenging semester to still do well in the course.
  • Recorded and posted asynchronous lectures in order to increase office hours as well as focus on problem solving and other forms of active learning during synchronous sessions.

Professor Linda Green, Manus Patten and Jennifer Fox
BIOL104: Foundations of Biology II
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.

  • Additional weekly synchronous classes, including lab sections, were scheduled for those in the West Coast and International Time Zones (this was particularly important if classes are scheduled early in the morning ET)
  • Increased length of time when pre-lecture and in-lecture quizzes were available, and removed late penalties for assignments, to allow for greater flexibility.
  • Maintained closed-book/note midterms and exams using Proctorio video and desktop recording. When Proctorio was not possible, students took the exam via Zoom camera on their phone. Will add Respondus browser lockdown for these Zoom students.
  • Asynchronous lectures/web resources, with reduction in synchronous meeting frequency/length.
  • Used breakout rooms and polls in lab sessions and synchronous sessions to check-in on students and keep everyone feeling connected.


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