Implementing Active Learning and Student-Centered Pedagogy in Large Classes

Instructor teaches large class with active learning

There is a vast pedagogical literature spelling out the benefits of student engagement and active participation (1). A recent meta-analysis study of 225 active learning classes further concludes that “active learning has a greater impact on student mastery of higher- versus lower-level cognitive skills” (p. 8411). Active learning places the student at the center of a lecture’s objective and its outcome. Students in these lectures are not only engaged in learning but are also involved in cognitive processes such as comprehension and evaluation. These processes then translate into (a) improved and deeper learning, (b) better grades, and (c) lower failure rates (2, 3). Given this growing evidence, it would be beneficial to incorporate these active learning strategies into the classroom. My aim was to adopt some form of active learning to enhance my traditional lectures, and to improve my students’ class experience.  

There are wide-ranging theories of active and deep learning, and just as many applications of this kind of learning (1). So, how do we translate these theoretical frameworks into practical applications in our discipline? Not all strategies lend themselves well to different disciplines. Although bringing tactile elements to a classroom may help students in the sciences, a video case-study could be a better motivational tool for business studies. Thus, to improve learning, the game plan should be to motivate your students to participate in class with your class content.

Reducing the vast number of theories down to adaptable elements for my economics courses was honestly a process of trial and error. I struggled with time along with questions such as: How much class time should be devoted to active learning and participation? Should this be at the expense of course content? Given that first year undergraduate economics courses are mostly preparatory for advanced economics classes, the content of these courses is not up for debate, and none can be sacrificed. The solution was to use a blended learning approach: modifying the course structure, introducing online videos for review, and changing how the content was delivered in class.

In order to free up lecture time, roughly 15% of traditional lecture-style classes are now substituted with online reviews. Students watch video tutorials in order to review basic concepts before class. While I still teach these concepts in class, I do not have to review them before subsequent lectures and they no longer need to be revisited for other sections. With more class time available, students can then engage in problem-solving during lecture time. I began using this approach for only a few lectures, and over time, I have developed more video tutorials and have incorporated more class exercises.

The action plan for student engagement varies by class size. In smaller, fourth-year undergraduate classes with an average class size of 12-18 students, it is easy to interact with students while they analyze or discuss real-world issues.  Of course, a smaller class size is inherently more conducive to active learning. Furthermore, it helps to have suitable physical space and flexible seating to allow students to form groups and have discussions within and between groups.  While students solve problems or apply concepts, I transition between groups to try and help them assimilate new information while making the right connections with what they already know. 

Larger classes are, however, a big challenge. An average class size of a first year economics course can consist of 80 to 150 students. It is, thus, not feasible to interact with every group, let alone every student in a class of >100 students. Big lecture halls with fixed seats are not designed for group work. Have you ever tried to get students to walk around in these big lecture halls and form groups? You might as well forget about teaching that day.  After much thought, I decided to rely on peer interaction and trust that students, if asked, might engage in solving posed problems. The aim was to only ‘spark’ a discussion, not a debate. I wanted students to at least question their knowledge.

There are probably other processes to achieve this. In my case, I use a mixture of iClicker question-answer sessions and in-class worksheets.

I distribute worksheets with an exercise or a question to be solved in less than five minutes. Students are first prompted to think through the problem and then, while remaining in their seats, discuss the exercise with their neighbour. Meanwhile, the teaching assistants and I would walk around the lecture hall to offer help and encouragement. At times, I would have to introduce two people sitting next to each other.

Although most students use this time to discuss the exercise at hand and work on the questions, there are always some that do not participate. Given that an important aspect of active learning that leads to improved comprehension is students’ engagement with the problem, it is important to know how many of my students really participate in problem-solving.

In large classes, I have little opportunity to talk to every group. Thus, for one of my classes, I polled students at the end of the semester to get more insight into how they spent their time in class during problem solving. This was completely anonymous and voluntary.

Q: When you were given a question to solve in class and asked to discuss the question with your neighbor – you mostly:

  1. Discussed the question with more than 4 and more students
  2. Discussed the question in a group of 2-3 students
  3. Tried to solve the question by yourself
  4. Read your notes
  5. Listened to others discussing the question
  6. None of the above

To give you a better idea of the response rate, the daily attendance rate for this class of 110 students was between 75 to 90. Out of 110 students, 79 students answered with the following responses:

Out of the 79 students that responded, 83% were engaged with the class exercise, and 71% worked on the exercise as a group. It seems that the time and effort I spend actively engaging students is serving its purpose. To what extent this translates into improved and deeper learning is a question further to be explored. However, I do observe more focus and questions at the end of the lecture.  

It is not smooth sailing by any means. After that great semester when students’ positive feedback skyrocketed, I introduced more worksheets and increased the time given for both individual and group work. I soon realized that there was an optimal point which I had crossed and had to cut back on these activities. The time required to finish an exercise or task varied by students, which in turn depended on the content. As I gave extra time for more students to complete the exercise, more were also left bored and frustrated waiting for others. Furthermore, when students did not know how to move forward, extra time did not serve any purpose.  

As I mentioned, it is all trial and error, and I am now beginning to find a balance that works for my lectures.

Nisha Malhotra, PhD, is an associate professor of economics in the education leadership stream at the University of British Columbia. Malhotra received an MA from the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and a PhD from the University of Maryland (ECON), College Park.

Malhotra is a strong advocate of using social media and new technologies in higher education and developed the first blended learning version of the introductory microeconomics course (offered in 2014). A percentage (roughly 10%) of traditional lecture-style classes has been substituted with online learning and video tutorials, freeing class time for problem-solving and active learning. Malhotra’s YouTube education channel focuses on economics and serves as a resource for students at UBC and beyond. Her research is of an inter-disciplinary social scientist with a strong interest in population, gender, and health questions. Her recent work focuses on maternal and child health in India.


Matsushita, K. (2018). An invitation to deep active learning. In Deep Active Learning (pp. 15-33). Springer, Singapore.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning boosts performance in STEM courses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Felder, R. M., Felder, G. N., & Dietz, E. J. (1998). A longitudinal study of engineering student performance and retention. V. Comparisons with traditionally‐taught students. Journal of Engineering Education, 87(4), 469-480.