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Teaching Large Online Courses Effectively and Efficiently

How do you maximize student learning, uphold academic integrity, and manage grading loads in a large online course?

While managing a large online course can feel overwhelming and time-consuming, the unique online environment allows ways in which instructors can provide students with learning opportunities they may not otherwise have. 

The following four strategies highlight the importance of purposeful course design in which instructors can utilize both the synchronous (e.g., Zoom) and asynchronous (e.g., CourseWorks (Canvas)) online spaces to effectively support student learning. At the same time, instructors can capitalize on the affordances of instructional technologies and partner with TAs to efficiently manage the course.

While these strategies focus on the online context, they are not exclusive to the online modality and are applicable to in-person and hybrid/HyFlex contexts. We encourage instructors to take these strategies and adapt them in their own courses across all modalities. They are:

1. Build Community to Make a Large Class Feel Small

Create community among students by establishing a set of norms for online interactions. Provide students with opportunities to engage with each other in small groups, and connect with your students on an individual basis.

For additional ways to build community using CourseWorks (Canvas) tools, please refer to Teaching with CourseWorks.

Co-create community agreements

Co-create community agreements for interactions on Zoom or CourseWorks. Engage in dialogue with students about what is expected of them, as well as what they can expect from the instructor. This can be discussed synchronously (during a live Zoom session) or asynchronously (via CourseWorks announcements or discussion, polls, etc.).

Utilize the asynchronous space for group interaction

Incorporate ongoing community building activities to provide opportunities for small group interaction among students. The Groups feature in CourseWorks can be used to put students into groups so that they have their own asynchronous interactive work space in which they can share files, send messages, hold video conferences, and work on group activities and assignments. For examples of online community building strategies, visit the CTL’s Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses resource.

Check in before and after class.

  • Use Arrive 10-15 mins early to your Zoom class session to greet and interact with students. Let them know ahead of time that you’ll be doing this so that interested students can plan accordingly.
  • Let students know that you will keep the Zoom space open after class to address any remaining questions they may have as well as to continue checking in and conversing with them.

Address students by name

  • Use Name Coach to learn students’ names. Students can record the pronunciation of their names so faculty can preview them ahead of class.
  • Students can change their names and include their pronouns in their Zoom profile. Alternatively, they can change their display name for a single Zoom class session.

2. Encourage Active Engagement

Actively engage students with each other and with course material to help them improve their class performance and achieve long-term learning (Barkley, 2010; Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011; Howard, 2015; Murray & Lang, 1997; Freeman et al., 2014). To promote student engagement, consider inviting reactions and polling students on Zoom, flipping the class, and encouraging peer-to-peer learning.

For more strategies on this topic, see other CTL resources: 

Read the Zoom room: Invite reactions and poll students

  • For a quick check-in with students during a synchronous Zoom session, nonverbal feedback and reactions in Zoom allow students to choose different reactions (see image below; note the top row of reactions disappear after a few seconds while the bottom two rows do not and need to be unselected) to show their responses to an instructor question or to give feedback to the instructor. 

Image: Zoom reaction buttons

  • Use polls to engage all students. In Zoom, pose a closed-ended question by using a Zoom poll. Use Poll Everywhere for open ended questions. Poll Everywhere provides a variety of aggregation features such as word cloud, clickable image, multiple choice, ranking, and competition. To learn more about synchronous, web-based polling systems, see the CTL’s resource: Audience Response Systems.

Flip the class

Design parts of the course so that students do basic preparation outside of class asynchronously (e.g., watch a pre-recorded short lecture, do readings, solve problem sets) and engage more deeply with course material in class (e.g., discussion, Q&A, breakout room activities).

Create study pods to encourage peer-to-peer learning 

  • For some assignments, allow collaboration with peers in study pods (either assigned by you or formed on their own) and require students to write up their own answers and provide the names of their collaborators. Explain your rationale for such requirements (e.g., to learn from each other and to learn to give due credit).
  • Structure virtual office hours to encourage students to first meet in their study pods to discuss course material and then attend office hours to ask further questions. Each study pod or their representative can sign up for a time slot during office hours and/or send you questions in advance so you can prepare. 

3. Promote Academic Integrity 

The stress of high-stakes assessments and the fast pace of large classes can lead to integrity issues. To promote academic integrity, have a conversation with your students about what academic integrity looks like in your course. Recognize that big exams are not the only way to assess student learning. Provide students with support to be successful in your course.

For further support on promoting academic integrity, visit the CTL’s Promoting Academic Integrity resource. 

Review course policies with students

  • In the first week of class, be clear about expected student behavior in the course through course policies (attendance, accommodations) and submission policies (late submissions, grade appeals, make-up work, academic integrity). 
  • Course policies can be delivered in multiple modalities, including but not limited to short video/audio messages, CourseWorks announcements, and open discussions with students during a synchronous class session.

Lower the stakes and increase the frequency of assessment 

  • Provide frequent low-stakes assessment opportunities throughout the course, e.g., via CourseWorks quizzes (with automatic feedback to manage grading load), to help students monitor their own learning progress. Low-stakes assessments reduce the stress associated with formal assessments because students know that the weight of these assessments is small and there are many opportunities to improve their performance besides large exams.
  • Move from recall-type questions to those that require higher-order thinking processes (For example, see CTL’s resource: Developing Poll Questions to Engage and Assess Student Thinking in Science and Engineering Courses). While recalling basic facts and other information is important in developing expertise, these could be more appropriate for regular low-stakes assessments, while these higher-stakes ones focus on making decisions, applying knowledge, and explaining rationale.
  • Create new exam questions rather than recycling the ones used in your previous course, and let students know about this. This prevents students from being tempted to share test answers with each other or looking up online databases where your tests may have been uploaded.

Provide students with support to be successful in the course

  • Send regular reminders about upcoming deadlines for assignments.
  • Encourage students to communicate with you or your TA(s), whether sharing concerns or seeking assistance. Be clear about the best way to communicate with you or TA(s). 
  • Arrange review/Q&A sessions, office hours, and recitations to help students prepare for major exams and other assignments.
  • Share grading rubrics in CourseWorks to make explicit to students the learning they should focus on and the level of performance they need to demonstrate. Rubrics also help to ensure consistency across multiple graders.
  • Hold debrief sessions after major exams to provide explanations on questions that many students incorrectly answered and allow students to learn from their mistakes.

4. Save Time: Leverage Technology and Partner with TAs

Leverage online grading tools to save time and grade efficiently. TAs can also be powerful allies and serve as the first line of main contact for students they are responsible for. Regular communication with your TAs is critical to the successful performance of the TAs. 

Speed up online grading and feedback

  • Use CourseWorks SpeedGrader or Gradescope to streamline the grading process for large numbers of quizzes and exams. For more detailed tips on grading using CourseWorks and Gradescope, see CTL’s resource: Grading in Online Courses at Columbia: Tips and Strategies.
  • For certain assignments, provide broad feedback/comments noting overall progress. You can do this via CourseWorks announcements or audio/video-recorded messages. For example, when you respond to students’ posts on an online discussion board, rather than individually responding to each post, broadly assess and comment on the particular patterns/themes/areas that you notice across the students’ posts. For more information on providing feedback to students, see the CTL’s resource: Feedback for Learning.

Share roles and responsibilities with TAs

  • Articulate the different roles and responsibilities of TAs (e.g., monitoring chat in Zoom, responding to student questions in CourseWorks discussions, grading quizzes and exams, holding office hours, facilitating in-class activities, etc.) and communicate these to your TAs and students so that it is clear whom students should contact and what to expect. 
  • Arrange a weekly meeting with your instructional team to share and discuss strategies for helping students. Ask TAs to see if students are signaling any confusion about course content, assignment deadlines, quizzes/exams, etc.
  • For additional guidelines on working with TAs, see the CTL’s resource: Working with TAs Online.

The CTL is here to help!

For assistance with teaching large online courses, please request a consultation with the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) by emailing CTLFaculty@columbia.edu.

Departments, programs, and schools can request a Workshop To Go on the topic of this resource. For any questions, contact CTLfaculty@columbia.edu.

For assistance with the pedagogical use of instructional technologies mentioned (CourseWorks, Poll Everywhere, Zoom), please contact the CTL Learning Designer liaison for your school or department, or email the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu

Virtual office hours with learning designers are also available Monday through Friday, 9am – 5pm on the Morningside Campus and 10am – 2pm on the Medical Campus.

References

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Howard, J. R. (2015). Discussion in the college classroom: Getting your students engaged and participating in person and online. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Murray, H. G. & Lang, M. (1997). Does classroom participation improve student learning?. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20, 7-9.

The CTL researches and experiments.

The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.