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Three Common Demands from Students in Large Classes and What to Do about Them

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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As I look at the midterm feedback I have gathered for years from a variety of large lecture classes, I see some common themes. The themes across these courses reflect the needs of novice learners in our disciplines and connect to what the research says about how learning works. Below I list three common student requests and ways to think about responding to them.



The posting below, as the title suggests, looks at “Three Common Demands from Students in Large Classes and What to Do about Them.” It is by Linda C. Hodges,
Faculty Development Center University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 5, September 2016. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Three Common Demands from Students in Large Classes and What to Do about Them


I recently had a conversation with a faculty member about the midterm feedback she had received from the students in her course. Her response to their suggestions echoed one I often hear in my work in faculty development: “Really, I can’t believe all the things students want me to do for them nowadays—they expect to be spoon-fed. This isn’t grade school!” As faculty we can indeed feel beset by student demands today. No wonder—the students attending our colleges and universities come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before, and they may be more focused on attaining credentials for a job than expanding their minds.

But not all of our students’ demands are unwarranted. Sometimes our students are expressing the needs and frustrations of novice learners in our fields. They know that something isn’t working for them, but they may not know the real basis for their problems nor the best way to fix them. In these cases, we need to translate their comments into the language of learning (Hodges and Stanton 2007). Only then can we decide whether—and how—to change our teaching to accommodate an apparent student need.

As I look at the midterm feedback I have gathered for years from a variety of large lecture classes, I see some common themes. The themes across these courses reflect the needs of novice learners in our disciplines and connect to what the research says about how learning works. Below I list three common student requests and ways to think about responding to them.

Students Want the Presentation Slides

In large lecture classes in which the faculty member uses presentation slides, the students overwhelmingly want the slides, preferably before class. Many students have been raised on PowerPoint since grade school, and their note-taking ability is often underdeveloped. Add in the content-heavy nature of many of our disciplines, and students can easily feel overwhelmed with information. But it isn’t our jobs to compensate for students’ lack
of prior training, is it? And if we provide the slides, won’t students simply disengage?

The process and value of taking notes may not be as simple as either our students or we think. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study (2014) on the effect of students taking notes with a laptop versus by hand suggests that simply transcribing notes verbatim via laptop isn’t that effective in promoting conceptual learning. In the study, students who took handwritten notes took fewer notes but performed better when tested than students who took notes using a laptop—even when both groups had time to study their notes. This finding was especially true of student performance on conceptual versus factual questions. The real power of taking notes may be in the mental processing we do as we generate them. Theories of learning propose that for complex content to be transferred to long-term memory we must first focus our attention on it and then connect it to prior knowledge retrieved from long-term memory. When taking notes, for example, students often need to evaluate an idea’s relevance or weigh its importance. Unfortunately, the number of ideas that we can focus on at once, our working memory capacity, is very limited. In a fast-paced lecture, new incoming information readily displaces the old from our working memory before it can be linked to prior knowledge in a meaningful way. This shortcoming can handicap students’ abilities to take useful notes, especially when students have not heard or read about the ideas we present beforehand.

Cue Up Prior Knowledge. One solution that scaffolds students’ note-taking skills is to use, and provide students with, skeletal slides. If our slides primarily provide an outline and important images or data, then students must focus their attention to fill in the gaps. At the same time, however, the outline helps them cue up former knowledge and organize new ideas. In addition, we can aid their novice note-taking skills by repeating key themes and by pausing frequently to allow them to catch up—or, better yet, provide an activity that deliberately engages them in processing information. Emphasizing main points and drawing clear connections between ideas is not pandering to students’ demands—it’s recognizing the cognitive needs of new learners in our fields.

But will students stop coming to class if we provide the slides ahead of time? Research results on this question are mixed. But if the class session consists of purposeful activities that fill in critical gaps in the information presented on slides, savvy students will still come.

Students Want Practice Tests

Many of us provide our students with organized content, our goals for their learning, and examples in class. So when our students ask for practice tests we may feel that they really are going too far. Wouldn’t that be giving it away?

Not really. The brains of novices aren’t wired like ours. Our expert’s brain includes packaged “chunks” of both interrelated information and tools to process it that our novice students lack. Their knowledge tends to be more compartmentalized and less connected. Thus, students often struggle to see the forest for the trees in terms of our disciplinary content. For instance, physics students frequently classify problems as being about pulleys or incline planes rather than about forces and friction (Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser 1981).

Similarly, our students are usually more facile at acquiring information and less adept in applying and synthesizing concepts. And, indeed, in classes that are content heavy, the content overload itself tends to push students into rote learning rather than learning for understanding (Prosser and Trigwell 1999). Thus, focusing students’ thinking both in class and out on applying and integrating ideas is key to their developing expertise. A good test shows students not only what we expect them to know, but also how we want them to use that knowledge. Providing practice exams, then, gives students the opportunity of training their brains to make the kind of mental maneuvers that we expect of them. In addition, the act of taking a test helps promote, not just assess, learning through the so-called testing effect (for example, see Karpicke and Roediger 2008).

Have Them Write A Question. Just providing practice exams for students, however, can be misleading. Students can revert to the naïve notion that learning is memorizing and simply memorize the items on the test. We can illustrate the purpose and value of test-taking by using old exam questions as group exercises in class. Such activities engage students in analyzing and synthesizing ideas and promote their metacognitive abilities as they discuss options and rationales. If we then extend the exercise by asking students to create a new question that probes understanding of the same concept, we are encouraging them to think like an expert. Rewiring the brain is hard work, and providing practice exams is one way to help.

Some Students Want Active Learning, Others Want More “Teaching”

In classes taught primarily through lecture, students often want more interaction in class. In classes taught predominantly through active learning methods, however, students are often divided—some like it and others don’t. Students may complain that faculty aren’t “teaching” when they use these approaches. Should we risk getting poor evaluations by lecturing more? Or should we abandon lecture and hope for the best?

Research evidence strongly supports the value of active learning in promoting student learning (Freeman et al. 2014); so, adopting or refining our use of these approaches is well worth the effort. Student resistance to active learning can stem from students’ lack of familiarity with the format, lack of comfort in working in groups, or lack of trust in us (Seidel and Tanner 2013). In addition, if students believe that learning equals memorizing, they will see no value in listening to anyone but us. Because we hold the keys to their grades, they can be afraid that what they do in groups won’t match what we “want” on exams. Students can also be telling us, however, that they need more structure or guidance in how to learn from these formats.

Hold Up A Mirror: Pre-Post Test. Effective active learning requires us to be intentional and methodical in cultivating the learning we want for students—otherwise it can be, both in appearance and actuality, no more than busywork. We need to make sure that the purpose and value of each activity is clear and that students receive feedback on their efforts. Active learning can appear chaotic, and students may not know just what they learned from it. Capturing key ideas on the board (or screen) or having students summarize main points can make learning explicit. Doing a short pre-test before a session followed by a post-test at the end can also dramatically demonstrate learning gains.

If we are good at lecturing, however, then doing anything else well may take some practice and temporarily affect our student ratings. Gathering and acting upon students’ midterm feedback whenever we try something new can circumvent any unpleasant surprises on our end-of-term evaluations.

The Value of Student Demands

The bottom line is that our students’ demands provide a glimpse into their challenges and fears as novice learners. Responding thoughtfully and humanely to student voices can make the classroom experience more meaningful and enjoyable for both our students and for us.



Chi, M. T. H., P. Feltovich, and R. Glaser. 1981. Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices. Cognitive Science 5: 121–152.

Freeman, S., S. L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth. 2014. Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (23): 8410–8415.

Hodges, L. C., and K. Stanton. 2007. Translating Comments on Student Evaluations into the Language of Learning. Innovative Higher Education 31: 279–286. 

Karpicke, J. D., and H. L. Roediger III. 2008. The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science 319 (5865): 966–968.

Mueller, P. A., and D. M. Oppenheimer. 2014. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science 25 (6): 1159–1168.

Prosser, M., and K. Trigwell. 1999. Understanding Learning and Teaching. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Seidel, S. B., and K. D. Tanner. 2013. “What if Students Revolt?” Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation. CBE-Life Sciences Education 12 (4): 586–595.



Linda C. Hodges, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Director, Faculty Development Center University of Maryland, Baltimore County 1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore, MD 21250