Large Class Management

(Note: This was originally published in KOTESOL’s TEC Magazine. I could tell you the date but that would mean I would have to look it up.)

                    By Michael Griffin & Manpal Sahota

Teaching anything anywhere has its challenges. Here in Korea one common challenge teachers face is large class sizes. Classroom management becomes paramount in delivering effective lessons in such a situation. Too many good teachers have seen their lessons derailed by deficient classroom management skills. In this column we wish to highlight successful strategies to effectively manage large classes.

Classroom management begins the moment you first step into the classroom on day one. It is important to set the classroom culture on the very first day of class. A great way to do this is through the establishment of class rules. Some teachers simply dictate their class rules and expect students to follow them. We feel this may not be best as it excludes students from the process of forming the classroom culture. We strongly feel students should be included in this stage since they are obviously integral members of the classroom. Rather than merely dictating classroom rules, have an activity where students decide in groups what class norms should be instilled. This can prove to be a great ice-breaking activity since students often come up with creative and absurd rules. This can help to create a more comfortable atmosphere on the first day of class. Hopefully, when groups share their answers, you will have some reasonable rules, and, at this time, you can add your own rules if students fail to mention any that you deem important. If students help make the rules, they will be more inclined to follow them.

Michael has had success taking the list of student-generated norms and making a class contract. With great ceremony he has the students swear to uphold the contract for the duration of the course. He also likes to post the norms on the wall for everyone to see. If a student forgets to follow the norms, a simple nod in the direction of the poster is enough to get them on track. Student involvement in the creation of the norms is really important so that the teacher can simply remind the students that they are not following the norms that were created together.

While establishing class rules with your students is paramount, equally as important is having consequences if those rules are broken. If students break rules without any consequence, your class management system will undoubtedly break down. There are various consequences you can establish for rule-breaking, depending on your teaching context.

For public school teachers who have large class sizes (30~40 students), a great classroom management technique is to use an on-going group merit/demerit point system. If students are given merit/demerit points based on groups, this will help them police themselves, thus shifting the responsibility from you to your students. Peer pressure can be exerted in powerful ways so that students that are hurting their teams will strive to do the opposite. In elementary schools, it’s important to have a merit/demerit score chart visible for all students to see so that they can track their progress. Often, you motioning towards the score chart can cause students to stop misbehaving. Each class, students can receive points/stickers based on their performance which can go towards a reward either at the end of each month or at the end of the semester.

An on-going reward system set up in this way is far more effective than giving daily ‘candy’ rewards to students. These classes can resemble a parade because of all the candy being thrown around, and the reward strategy often loses its effectiveness after a few weeks as students expect treats every class. It is still possible to give more frequent rewards that are not material in nature. For examples of non-material rewards, look at the following link:

Manpal saw a great example of a merit/demerit point system from a teacher at Suseo Elementary School. The teacher there uses a large board that has 5-6 vines running vertically (one vine for each group). At the bottom of each vine is a cut-out of a monkey. The teacher calls it “Monkey Up/Monkey Down.” Whenever groups exhibit positive behavior – volunteering answers, helping their group members, etc. – their group’s monkey goes up one notch on the vine. If groups exhibit negative behavior, their group’s monkey goes down one notch on the vine. At the end of class, groups who reach the top of the vine get a sticker that is counted towards a reward at the end of the semester. This method is quite effective as students can track their progress on the board. It really promoted cooperative learning and team work among group members.

Another example is writing a word on the board (for example, E-N-G-L-I-S-H) and erasing a letter anytime students are misbehaving. As mentioned before, simply motioning to erase a letter can cause students to change their behavior. If students improve their behavior, you can add the letter back. At the end of class students can get points/stickers based on how many letters are left. You can either give points/stickers to each student or award them to the class as a whole, and have them compete with other classes in their grade. If you choose the latter method it’s important to show classes their ranking at the start or end of each class.

For middle and high school teachers, with older students, a slightly different strategy is required. The basic principles of creating rules with your students and using a merit/demerit system with consequences for rule breaking remain. However, rather than giving points that go towards an on-going reward, teachers in secondary schools should have the merit/demerit system tied in with students’ grades. If you are a foreign teacher working in a public school, talk to your co-teachers before the semester starts and ask that some percentage of students’ final English grade be allocated to your classes. 10~15% would be ideal, but even 5% would be enough to make students want to earn full marks, especially with students in upper grades where the educational environment can be quite competitive. Without allocating some percentage points of students’ final English grade to your class, it can be extremely difficult for you to manage your students. If students know that they are not being graded in your class, they may not take your class seriously and instead see your class as a ‘break time’ from regular schooling.

For university teachers, since you are normally responsible for the entire English grade of your students, it should be easier for you to create rules with your students and implement a merit/demerit system with consequences that will affect their overall grade. It is important to clearly spell out your system to your students and let them know how they will be given/deducted marks on the first day of class. It is also important to keep a weekly record so students can track their progress during the term. At the end of the term, the weekly record will come in handy when students ask you for grade adjustments, as you will have something tangible to show them why they received the grade you gave them. Transparency is the key here. We recommend making something that could appear subjective seem as objective as possible.

It’s also important to combine the ideas mentioned above with other essential teaching methods and techniques. These include using verbal and non-verbal cues, reducing teacher talk, asking comprehension check questions, and modeling activities fully. For more detailed information on these and other strategies, please refer to our article on Effective Activity Delivery in the 2009 summer issue of TEC. As well, for those of you who teach with co-teachers there are strategies that you and your co-teachers can implement to improve class management. We will cover those strategies in a future article. We hope the strategies we discussed in this article will provide you with some more ideas on how to manage your class effectively and encourage you to try them out.

March 2013 Update:
I have noticed quote a few more visitors than usual on this page. Thanks for coming!
I wanted to share another link I think is helpful for managing large classes.
Here you can see 6 different blog posts with a variety of ideas from iTDi.

These materials that I have used for workshops on (large) classroom management might be helpful as well.


  1. Pingback: #KELTChat summary: Classroom Rules and Implementing Them (9th December 2012) | #KELTChat
  2. smkelly8

    I whole heartedly agree about involving students in the process of classroom management. It doesn’t mean the teacher does nothing, but the students should have a voice. My students appreciate that. Creating small cohorts is also helpful. I borrow this idea from law school where study groups is encouraged, though not required.

    I teach in China and every class has a “monitor” whose responsibility is to lead the class in numerous ways. I appreciate this person, who I use to create the groups. The monitor usually knows his or her peers well and makes good choices.

    In other cultures, you might be able to develop this sort of helper . . .

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks so much for the comments. I am with you on having students involved in classroom management. I think it really helps with the “buy-in” that teachers are likely looking for. It is nice to delegate some things to the monitor as you described. That sounds like a good way of smoothing things over. Thanks again for the comments and thanks for reading!

  3. Pingback: A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  4. Pingback: Thoughts about Classroom Management | Wednesday Seminars

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