Active Learning: Surmounting the Challenges in a Large Class

“Enabling interaction in a large class seems an insurmountable task.” That’s the observation of a group of faculty members in the math and physics department at the University of Queensland. It’s a feeling shared by many faculty committed to active learning who face classes enrolling 200 students or more. How can you get and keep students engaged in these large, often required courses that build knowledge foundations in our disciplines?

The article referenced below recounts how this faculty group did it in an introductory-level physics course required of most science majors at their university. They implemented an “integrated approach to active learning that supports the class activities with extensive preparation by both the teacher and the students. A key feature of our approach is the rich data it provides to teachers about student understanding before the start of each class.” (p. 77)

Their approach has two distinct phases: what the students do before they come to class and what happens during class. As with the flipped classroom model, these students are responsible for “covering” the content before they come to class. After completing the assigned reading, students take a short online quiz that must be completed 12 hours before class. The quiz questions are conceptual and interpretative (not problem solutions), which means the answers are written out. Students get full credit if they have answered all questions “seriously” (p. 78) regardless of the number they have answered correctly. The team involved in the redesign of this course developed software that expedites the grading of the quizzes.

“Rather than the lecture being a teacher-led oration, the lecturer makes sure that any core concepts the students found difficult are discussed detail. … The focus of the class session is then a series of discussions of each of the core concepts for the lecture as defined by the learning goals for the unit of study, effectively turning the lecture into a mass tutorial experience.” (p. 78) This is why the teacher needs to be able to analyze student quiz answers quickly. Those answers set the agenda for what is discussed during the class period.

In class, “each discussion starts with one or more of the students’ quiz responses [that] illustrate why the concept is difficult to them. The lecturer has the students work on a series of conceptual questions designed to build and test their understanding.” (p. 79) For each question, the students use clickers to answer individually, but they do not see the class response. Then they are encouraged to talk about their answer with those seated nearby, and after that they answer the question for a second time. This time they see the answers. At this point, the lecturer moves around the room with a microphone and asks students to explain why they chose a particular option, with the goal being to get multiple answers and perspectives. At the end of this exchange, the instructor reveals the right answer and summarizes the arguments that support it.

The team assessed the impact of their approach in a variety of ways. Physics is one of those fields that has developed standardized tests that can be used to measure knowledge before and after a first course. Two of these tests were used to measure learning gains in this study. For the Force Concept Inventory, the normalized gain for 154 students (in one course section) was 58 percent. Other research has established that the normalized gain in the same course taught in more traditional ways is 23 percent. In the second section, using the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, the normalized gain was 47 percent, which can be compared with 23 percent in traditional first-year university classes. Those are impressive gains.

The team also considered the effects of student engagement as measured by the clicker responses. The average percentage of correct answers when students responded individually was 55 percent. It jumped to 67 percent after students interacted with each other. A series of focus group interviews with students revealed an overall favorable response to the course design. The students noted how valuable it was when the majority of the class chose the incorrect answer to one of the conceptual questions, especially when they were confident they had answered it correctly. When they discovered they were wrong, as one student observed, “That’s when I learn the most. That is revolutionary.” (p. 83) The standard course evaluation surveys also confirmed the positive response to this course redesign. “Our first unit was ranked among the highest first-year science courses for both overall student satisfaction, and for the amount of ‘helpful feedback’ received by students.” (p. 84)

The article continues with a discussion of faculty experiences preparing for and teaching the course. “It’s a completely different activity when you walk into the room knowing exactly where students are in their own words—in a normal class you often don’t find out until you make the final exam!” (p. 84) Teachers arrive in class knowing what students don’t understand, what they misunderstand, and what is causing confusion. That said, the teachers in this project found that the approach required more preparation time. Some of this involved first-time-through issues such as the generation of the conceptual questions used on the quizzes and in class. These could be reused, refined, or revised in subsequent classes. As might be suspected, it was also challenging for those faculty who were used to lecturing to talk less, giving students the time they needed to think and talk about the content.

“We cannot identify a single aspect of our approach that works above all others; it is the integration of all the practices into a coherent process that makes it such a powerful teaching and learning intervention.” (p. 86)

This article is noteworthy for another reason. It’s the whole package—what exactly the faculty implemented (with references that support their design features), how they assessed the changes, what their results showed, and what they learned through the process. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship—it’s both useful and readable!

Reference: Drinkwater, M. J., Gannaway, D., Sheppard, K., Davis, M. J., Wegener, M. J., Bowen, W. P., and Corney, J. F. (2014). Managing active learning processes in large first-year physics classes: The advantages of an integrated approach. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 2 (2), 75-90.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 29.4 (2015): 4-5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.