Teaching the Masses: Managing Large Cohorts

Enrolments at Australian universities have increased 41 per cent since 2008 (Universities Australia, 2020). Growing enrolments inevitably leads to larger cohorts and more significant pressure on academics to manage hundreds, if not thousands of students.

Defining large cohorts

At present, there is no consensus amongst academic literature on precisely what constitutes a large class or cohort (Mantai & Huber, 2021). Hornsby and Osman (2014) advocate for a broad definition that focuses not on the number of students enrolled in a unit but on the impact, large student numbers can have on the quality of teaching. Such a definition acknowledges the contextual factors (i.e., discipline type and pedagogical strategies) that can affect how scale impacts teaching. In other words, how significantly scale affects your teaching depends on what exactly you’re trying to achieve.

So that you might better understand if the practical tips in this post may help you, I’ll unpack some contextual details that will shed light on what a large cohort is in my context. I work as a learning designer at the Sydney Business School, Australia. Enrolments in our units range from 20 to over 1800 students. The School embraces blended and active learning and aims to facilitate connected and authentic learning experiences. A large cohort, in my context, is any unit with over 100 enrolled students or a unit where the pedagogical strategies employed by a teacher are challenging to implement at scale.

Practical tips for managing large cohorts

The practical tips listed below have been implemented in units with upwards of 1800 enrolled students.

Tips for communicating with staff and students

  • Utilise the University’s learning management system (LMS) Canvas for communicating and organising your teaching team. For example, create a page for every week (hidden from students) that you can use to upload files, links, teaching tips, and an outline of workshop activities.
  • Create a ‘How to Study This Unit’ page in Canvas to explain how students should learn in your unit and the delivery mode. You should also include a week-by-week breakdown of sub-topics and key tasks.
  • Share workshop outlines with your students ahead of time to ensure that students come prepared to class. This is particularly important if there are pre-work activities, as students will see how the activities fit in with the workshop. 
  • Utilise Canvas announcements to explain to students what they need to do each week, what’s coming up and to provide general feedback to the whole cohort.
  • Utilise Ed or Canvas discussions for managing student queries. They should not contact their tutors via email. 
  • Run weekly consultation sessions with students hosted by the Unit of Study Coordinator or a teaching team member. Use these sessions and discussion tools as the “source of truth” for assessments. Record the sessions and share them on Canvas.
  • Use SEAMS to create sections. Sections will enable you to share announcements to target groups, including students studying remotely or specific tutorials.

Tips for marking and assessments

  • Use Rubrics in Canvas (or your university’s LMS) to assist with marking. 
  • Create a bank of feedback comments that tutors can tweak to provide personalised feedback for students. 
  • Create detailed assessment instructions (either as a Word document or on Canvas), to manage student queries around assessments. Tutors should refer students to these instructions whenever there are questions. 
  • Use SEAMS to create assessment groups.

Tips for online learning content

  • Ensure your Canvas site is consistent and well laid out. Any inconsistencies (for example, in weeks where there is no online content) should be clearly explained to students ahead of time. 
  • Release Canvas content well ahead of time. For example, weekly modules should be released at least one week ahead of time.

Further resources for teaching and managing large cohorts

Take a look at the resources below for more tips on teaching and managing large cohorts.

References

Hornsby, D. J. & Osman, R. (2014). Massification in higher education: Large classes and student learning. Higher Education, 67, 711-719. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-014-9733-1

Mantai, L. & Huber, E. (2021). Networked teaching: Overcoming the barriers to teaching experiential learning in large classes. Journal of Management Education, 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562920984506

Universities Australia (2020). 2020 Higher Education Facts and Figures. https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/200917-HE-Facts-and-Figures-2020.pdf

Banner photo: Pixabay

Courtney is a learning designer at the University of Sydney Business School. Her work focuses on technology-enabled work-integrated learning, sustainable learning design and interactive learning in large classes.

Published by Courtney Shalavin

Courtney is a learning designer at the University of Sydney Business School. Her work focuses on technology-enabled work-integrated learning, sustainable learning design and interactive learning in large classes.

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