3 Ways to Keep Student Engagement High Despite Growing Classroom Sizes


When budgets tighten, class sizes often increase as a moneysaving measure. This can put additional strain on instructors, and make it more difficult for them to find the time and energy to connect with students on an individual level. There is a very real fear that students may slip through the cracks in a busier classroom.

One seventh-grade math teacher from North Carolina explained to the New York Times how even a jump from 25 to 31 students can play out in the classroom: “They say it doesn’t affect whether kids get what they need, but I completely disagree,” Ms. Maher said. “If you’ve gained five kids, that’s five more papers to grade, five more kids who need makeup work if they’re absent, five more parents to contact, five more e-mails to answer. It gets overwhelming.”

There is good news for teachers who find themselves spread thinly across their many responsibilities! These methods to keep student engagement up even amid a populated classroom are easy to integrate into curriculums of all levels, ranging from elementary school up through college lecture halls.

Sharing in Pairs

For all the challenges that accompany having a large classroom, lack of social communication is not one. Establishing teaching practices that incorporate the human element as an advantage will go a long way in allowing students to ask questions and share insights with their classmates.

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University recommends an exercise called “think-pair-share.” Instructors ask a question or present a problem to the class and give ample time for individual consideration. From there, students pair up for in-depth discussions with a partner and later present their thought processes to the entire group. These specific talking points become the jumping off point for class-wide discussions. It works because it puts greater responsibility on each classmate to talk and listen in equal measure, and has the potential to lead to constructive discussions. It also builds camaraderie, which can go a long way in making a class seem more personal.

Ask the Right Kinds of Questions

One moment that teachers truly fear is asking a question and hearing only figurative cricket noises in return. It interrupts the flow of information, and can lead to uncomfortable silences that seem to last forever. How can instructors prime their groups of students to get in the habit of answering questions and participating in class discussions?

The answer could be as simple as rephrasing questions so they’re specific and well-designed to coax out critical thinking, according to information from the Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Charlotte. Students may sit back and pass on answering questions that are phrased so there is only one obvious answer, e.g. “…and two plus two is?” Craft questions to be thought-provoking and worth answering so students will make that extra effort. A classroom conversation shouldn’t feel like a multiple-choice test with only one right answer; work on your questions so they maximize potential for creative and critical analysis from all points of view.

Seek Real-Time Responses

Students are notorious for responding well to instant gratification. A quality classroom response system can become an invaluable tool when it allows students to answer surveys and see the results adjust in real time. By asking pupils to use a familiar device like a phone or computer to weigh in and displaying their feedback as it rolls in, you are providing an immediacy that engages students. Your goal as an educator is to help your students master their coursework and apply the lessons they’ve learned, and the comments and questions that a classroom response system gathers help demonstrate exactly where they stand on the material at hand to you, to each other, and to themselves.

Leading a big class may take some creative re-calibration, but there are plenty of ways to engage every single student sitting in front of you. Use these teaching tricks to encourage your students to speak up, interact with their peers, and engage with course material on a deeper level.