Harnessing Technologies to Promote Engagement for Large Courses

Harnessing Technologies to Promote Engagement for Large Courses

By Paula von Kretschmann, Amelia Gentile-Mathew, and Jeff Schwartz, OTL Instructional Designers

Navigating any college course as a student can be challenging, and large classes can present particular challenges. For instructors, prompting meaningful engagement in a large class can also seem overwhelming.

Students are often working across variables like internet speed, data caps, lack of social engagement, accommodations, and the realities of ongoing real-world events. This means that creating engaging and inclusive experiences in large-enrollment courses may sometimes require not-so-traditional teaching strategies. At the OTL, we often get the question, “How do I make my large class more manageable, meaningful, and engaging?”

Below, we’ve compiled some creative ways of increasing engagement in large class learning environments, across all modalities. In this blog we are focusing on DU enterprise-level technologies as they are available at no cost to all instructors at the university. 


Zoom has become the most common platform to deliver synchronous online lessons over this past eighteen months, but it is also one of our most powerful and versatile tools for post-pandemic teaching across all modalities, particularly in large-enrollment courses.

Pre-Assigned breakout rooms are great for large courses. As the instructor you can hop from one breakout room to another during small group time or study halls and office hours, allowing you flexibility to focus your time and energy across groups and student interactions.

The ability to create pre-assigned breakout rooms well in advance of the meeting time can also be beneficial for large courses. In addition, establishing groups for the quarter allows students to build relationships throughout the term from one Zoom session to another, engage in assignments together, and the ability to record their own breakout sessions (especially if you want them to upload any interactions/group work to Canvas afterward). 

What’s more, Zoom can even be deployed during a lecture, especially for instructors who allow the use of laptops in the classroom. Features like Polls, Live Caption, and Annotate can make courses more interactive and accessible for large classes with more than 30 students.  

For instance, it’s not always easy to gauge student comprehension in a large course, but using the poll feature during a lecture can give you live-time information about how students are engaging with and understanding the course material.

Spotlighting your video feed so students in large in-person classes can have a front row view, encouraging students to ask questions using the chat system, and leveraging annotations and other visual features, are all fantastic engagement tools still available for in-person courses. You can also screenshare documents and other materials using this same technique.

Microsoft Teams

While an underrated tool for online teaching, Teams is slowly being adopted for large classes. Like Zoom, Teams has similar options to Zoom in terms of breakout rooms, screen sharing, whiteboard, etc. However, it comes with a robust file sharing system (unlike Zoom). It also includes features like Channels, which are dedicated sections with the ability to create discussion threads, share files, and more. There is also the chat function, which allows for communication with and among students. Taken together, these features, and their ease of use, make Teams especially attractive for large courses that need to facilitate collaboration and group work.

Check-out this short overview of many of these features in Teams.

At the Office of Teaching and Learning, we are currently looking at deeper integration possibilities with Teams and Canvas, so please stay tuned.

Canvas Group & Peer Review Features 

While using Canvas may seem obvious, we find that it is often under-utilized because of the variety of options and settings available.  

When you have a large class in an online course, facilitating meaningful discussions can become overwhelming, with dozens of responses in the same discussion thread. This is where the Canvas “Groups” function comes in.

Groups allows instructors to create distinct cohorts of students for a specific assignment, quiz, or discussion. The “Best Practices for Large Courses in Canvas” article on Canvaslms.com puts it this way:

Groups provide collaboration opportunities for students to work together. In large Courses, Groups can provide students with a smaller circle of peers to interact with, which may be more engaging and manageable than interaction across the entire cohort…[Groups] can [also] be a great way to provide differentiated learning activities should you choose to create sections based on student ability.

Each group essentially becomes a mini-Canvas course container, with the ability to post announcements, or upload and share files, that are specific to the group.

The size of the Groups you create depends on the learning outcomes you want your students to work toward. According to ASU’s “Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part II,” group projects tend to work best with five students or less. Discussions can accommodate larger group sets, although if you are asking or requiring that students respond to each other’s posts, discussion threads can quickly get overwhelming, in our experience, when you have more than 10-15 students per group.

If you have multiple sections of the same course, you also have the option of creating differing availabilities and due dates for different sections.

Perusall – A Digital Annotation Tool 

Do you remember physical handouts in the classroom, where you passed around copies of a journal or an article in one class period to discuss together as a class the following week? Perusall is an online annotation tool that can be used in this same way.

Instructors can upload a document that you would like your students to review and/or annotate, assign readings to your class, enable deadlines, set thresholds for participation, assign groups, and more.

One of Perusall’s obvious benefits for large-enrollment courses is eliminating the need for printing out copies of texts. But what Perusall really excels at is transforming what used to be a solitary activity – annotating a printed-out copy of a text – into a social experience. Students are able to annotate content, respond to peers, upload media such as images or videos, and ‘Like’ posts. All this interactivity can have particular benefits for large-enrollment courses, allowing students the ability to learn from each other and foster a sense of classroom community.

To enable Perusall on Canvas, please consult this OTL Knowledge Base article. Once enabled, you can create assignments directly in Canvas.

Reach out to the OTL for Further Resources and Support

In sum, there are many options when it comes to facilitating a large enrollment course. At the end of the day, though, it is important to know your audience, and do what works best for you and your students. There is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to pedagogy, so our OTL Instructional Designers can always help you to explore different possibilities and technologies that can take your course to the next level of engagement. Please do not hesitate to schedule a 1:1 consult, and we can help to strategize different options together and evaluate your course needs using a personalized approach.