How to survive giant university classes

Large class sizes are a fact of life for many new undergraduate students. Here's how to make the most of the situation

When I started university, I was stunned—and a little freaked out—by the size of my classes. I’d come from a high school with classes of around 25 students; I was overwhelmed when my first university class was filled to the brim with 180 students. I quickly realized that’s actually a “mid-sized” class—some classes at Canadian universities have capacities of more than 1,000 students. Occasionally, several hundred pupils sit in the auditorium with the professor, while others watch a live video from a spillover room nearby.

READ: Advice on how to make online courses work for you

This is obviously less than ideal, but at least it’s often short-lived: as you move through your degree, classes will get smaller and more specialized. However, large class sizes are still a fact of life for many new undergraduates. Here are some tips for making the most of a class with tons of students.

Make a personal connection

Large classes can be alienating. It’s easy to feel anonymous in an auditorium filled with students because, let’s face it, you kind of are. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Start by talking to the people sitting next to you before class or during the break. If you make a friend in class, not only will you have someone to bum notes off of when you’re sick, but also you’ll begin building a community and feeling more at home.

Take detailed notes

Big classes, unless they are taught by rock star professors, are boring. They often feature very little discussion (how do you have a discussion with a thousand people?), lots of lecturing, and passive learning. That, combined with literally hundreds of laptop screens all around you, usually results in students reading each other’s chat messages rather than paying attention. My recommendation for getting around this? Take really detailed notes. When I was in undergrad, I signed up to take notes for students with accessibility needs. I got paid a small stipend. Knowing that someone was depending on my notes forced me to remain focused on the professor and not get distracted by everything around me.

Attend labs, tutorials and office hours

Large classes often have “extra” class time beyond lectures. In the sciences, there are labs; in the arts or social sciences, there are small discussion groups, typically called “conferences” or “tutorials.” Make sure to schedule these for a time when you can attend and try your best to make it. Your participation will likely account for a decent chunk of your overall grade and these “extras” often represent your best shot at having a hands-on, participatory learning experience. If your class doesn’t have a lab or tutorial, make sure that you visit your professor or TA during office hours. Arrive with specific questions or just to chat about course materials. This may sound like brown-nosing (and, in some cases, it can be) but it will be really beneficial. It will help you to grasp the subject matter and build relationships that could lead to reference letters and mentorship down the line.