Professor in yellow jacket engaging students with their hands up

By Stephanie Vizi, TLS feature writer

Students fill the seats of Southam Hall’s 444-seat Kailash Mital Theatre, Carleton’s largest lecture hall. The professor stands at the front competing with social media, cell phones and limitless apps for the attention of these media-savvy students.

Teaching large classes poses many challenges, both inside and outside the classroom. There are a number of strategies instructors can use to engage students in the learning process, whether it’s by making connections with students, in-class demonstrations, opinion surveys and group activities. But what happens in a class with hundreds of students?

Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University and the director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory, where he explores artificial intelligence applied to human visual imagination. In the classroom, Davies manages to keep the imaginations of his 900 first-year students (300 in class and 600 online) engaged by lecturing on topics that peak his students’ interest.

In his course, Mysteries of the Mind, Davies explores the science of dreaming and using cognitive science to decode films, while using his theatre and improv background to keep students engrossed.

Brettel Dawson, a professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, takes a different approach. She says she tries to engage students using cuLearn’s discussion forum function.

Dawson’s 240 second-year law students (90 in class, 150 online) can use the forum to respond to readings, ask lecture questions, and participate in debates on issues related to class readings for participation marks.

She says she uses cuLearn, “to help students create a learning environment and move them from a passive receiving mode to an active mode.”

Dawson is also experimenting with a back channel – a virtual conversation that occurs in real-time between students and the instructor during a lecture. This constant conversation can happen using laptops or mobile devices and helps give all students a voice during class time without having to speak up in front of a large group.

Dawson says back channels also allow instructors to instantly share supporting resources with students, and to ask questions and watch the responses roll in to determine if students understand the concepts being discussed.

Robert Burk, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, believes preparation is key to creating engaging classes.

“I don’t really see the difference in keeping a large number engaged or a small number engaged,” he says. “You’ve got to present something that is engaging.”

In his first-year general chemistry class, Burk teaches 850 students (350 in class and 500 online), many of whom take the course as an elective, so he says, “it’s necessary to bring it alive.”

To keep students engaged, Burk conducts in-class chemistry experiments, uses video content and provides a weekly problem-solving tutorial for students, which is optional, but strongly advised. Course assignments are completed online because he says this is the platform where students are most comfortable.

Burk says he is constantly pushing himself to innovate and engage his students because when they are “bored, lost or behind, they drop out.”

His techniques seem to be working. Burk says he has had numerous students change their major to chemistry, as well as go on to do graduate work in the field.

“It’s hard to know exactly what made them change, but I’m happy to be a part of it,” he says.

While the thought of trying to engage hundreds of students can be intimidating, these Carleton professors are showing that it is possible to make a large class feel small.

Do you have experience with trying to engage students in large lectures? Let us know what techniques you’ve used. Leave us a comment below or email

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