Helping Differently Prepared Students Succeed in Large Classes

Students attend an anatomy lecture at the Tufts University School of Medicine (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Large classes enroll a diverse student population, bringing with them different sets of experiences and background knowledge and skills. A strategy known as Differentiating Instruction, allows you to address differently prepared students with varying motivations, and generate multiple pathways for their success in a course.

This approach requires you to move from the role of simply delivering content, to designing multiple learning opportunities for your students. Below are some activities and assessments you can use to support a range students in your large class.

Pre-class Quizzes / Reading Quizzes

Short, low-stakes quizzes that test student understanding of readings or other class preparation materials help guide students’ study habits and promote learning throughout the semester. In a large class, these quizzess can be automatically graded, to provide students with instant feedback about their learning and help them develop habits of self-testing. Other not automatically graded pre-class quizzes might ask students to write answers to guiding questions, or to generate their own questions from the readings. For large classes, Canvas’ Quizzes tool can allow for automatic grading as students take the quizzes. Read more about Leveraging Pre-Class Reading Quizzes at Agile Learning.

In-class Polling

In a large class setting, using polling to ask students short questions allows them to test their own learning and deepen it through retrieval. The consistent, timely feedback provided by these polls help guide students’ self-evaluation. It can be particularly impactful for students who haven’t yet developed robust self-assessment skills. More advanced students can be engaged by questions that challenge them to think broadly or apply ideas in new contexts. For large classes, a platform like Poll Everywhere allows you to display and track answers from all students in real time. Read more about using Poll Everywhere in large classes.

End-of-Class Questions

Asking students a question at the end of class facilitates them to consolidate what they just learned. One example of an end-of-class question is the “Muddiest Point” question: “What is still most unclear from today’s lecture?” In answering, a student must recall what happened during class and evaluate their own understanding relative to each portion of the content. This can be valuable to all students in developing habits of self-evaluation. Another alternative in a large class setting, to help students develop skills of synthesis and prioritization, try this approach:

  • At the end of a class session, ask students to generate a list of the 3 most important things they learned today
  • At the beginning of the next class, you, as instructor, share with student what you believe were the most salient ideas from the last class
  • Then ask students to take a minute to individually compare your list with their own (this can be without class discussion)
  • If students observe a gap between what they felt was important, and what you prioritized, you can recommend that they ask why; this will help them understand if they missed something, or are just prioritizing their own motivations

In large classes, end-of-class questions can be collected with Poll Everywhere, Canvas, or on paper in the classroom. Another thing to consider is, they do not need to always be collected, there is value in students going through the thought process of answering them. Read more at Teaching@Tufts’ Classroom Assessment Techniques.

3-2-1 Reflection

Written reflections allow students to consider their own responses and reactions to newly acquired knowledge and skills. Reflections are particularly useful for helping students develop metacognitive skills, meaning: the ability to know what they know and direct their own learning progress. The 3-2-1 reflection method is a comprehensive way of reaching students at any level of preparedness. This can be given as a homework assignment in which students submit the following:

  • 3 things they learned or which can be applied in the real world
  • 2 questions they still have
  • 1 most interesting takeaway from the day’s class

In large classes, this can be done through Canvas’ quiz and survey tool which automatically provide credit upon student submission. Read more about creating Quizzes in Canvas.

Homework Assignments and Problem Sets

You can help differently prepared students learn from homework by forming student homework or study groups. Homework assignments are a common way for students to practice using the knowledge and skills they gained in class, often in anticipation of a larger-stakes assessment such as an exam or project. In a large class where you can’t provide individual students one-on-one tutoring in office hours, setting expectations for students that they will work in groups with peers can accomplish several things: (1) it creates a way for them to get valuable support and feedback from each other; (2) it can help less prepared students including those who need support the most; (3) students who tend to struggle alone are automatically included in a group study setting, and; (4) students benefit from structured, regular small-group meetings with peers. This useful guide has information about using inclusive practices to make student groups. Read additional tips for setting up group work here.


Tests, exams, and quizzes are common ways to evaluate students’ accumulated knowledge and skills. One way to help students at different levels of preparedness is to be transparent about what is expected of them beforehand. Providing a list of detailed learning objectives in advance can help students prioritize and direct their study. Students should also have the opportunity to practice questions similar in content and format, at home or in class. In a large-class setting online quiz tools, such as those in Canvas, have analytics, which allow you to review how students are doing in aggregate. When writing the test questions themselves, strive to align them with your learning objectives, which will include the knowledge and skills you want students to take away from the course. Also, check to see if your questions require students to have skills that are unrelated to those you want to test, for example, in a test question about a science concept, avoid English idioms that a student may not understand. See also: Writing and Revising Multiple Choice Questions (Teaching@Tufts).


Class projects provide an opportunity for students to apply their learning within a class. Being transparent up front about your expectations can save you and your students a lot of time and angst. For example, students may have different understandings of what a good paper looks like, or how to cite references. Including a rubric with the assignment can spell this out for students. In its essence, a rubric is a tool containing a limited number of carefully chosen criteria which are used to assess learning on a given assignment. Rubrics are efficient for communicating performance expectations and giving students feedback on the specific elements that comprise their grade. Additionally, asking students to evaluate their own work according to a rubric, can help them develop important skills of self-assessment. Canvas has a built-in rubric tool which can be applied to many types of assignments, and can be used to make grading more efficient. Read more about rubrics at Teaching@Tufts.

See Also