Large Courses and Student Expectations

Have you tried implementing some active learning strategies in a large course only to find students resisting those efforts? You put students in groups and give them some challenging discussion questions, only to see most of them sitting silently while a few make feeble comments to which no one in the group responds.

Faculty authors of the study referenced below had students in their large classes tell them that discussion was a waste of time. “I’m not going to be tested on what other people in class think!” (p. 125) This kind of resistance can quickly dampen faculty commitments to active learning strategies. The authors honestly reported that they wondered if it might just be easier to return to straight lectures.
However, before making that retreat, they decided to try to understand why students were responding so negatively. They designed a 136-item survey that inquired about all kinds of attitudes and experiences in large classes. (The survey is included in the College Teaching article). They administered the survey to students in 14 sections of courses offered by five departments: music, history, math, psychology, and sociology. The survey asked about large courses generally rather than about the courses in which it was administered.

Large Classes and Passive Learning
A number of interesting results emerged from the data. For example, the researchers compared the answers given by students in their first semester of college with those of students who had already taken large courses at that institution. They found that those students who had already experienced large courses “were more likely to prefer and expect passive-learning approaches in large courses.” (p. 130)

More troubling, experienced students were less committed to their large courses. Researchers support this conclusion by pointing to data indicating that these students more strongly preferred lectures, were more likely to skip large classes, wanted to be told what to do in large classes, didn’t want to work in groups, were less willing to do ungraded work, and had less interest in large classes that offered a mix of classroom activities.

Both new and experienced students expected that lower skill levels would be important to success in large courses. For example, more than 90 percent in both groups expected that they would be given multiple choice exams in large courses. Very few expected that they would have to write essay exams.

If large classes challenge students less and if students resist being involved in them, then the authors worry about those beginning students who take mostly large courses. Given all the research that establishes a connection between involvement and retention, they question the viability of making all introductory courses large courses, wondering if class size might not contribute to students’ decisions to drop out.

Their findings helped to explain the student responses they were seeing in large courses. The findings also rejuvenated their commitment to use strategies that involved students in these courses. In addition to a number of other helpful strategies the researchers are now using successfully in their large classes, they conclude with an important reminder: “Not all students are prepared for active learning experiences. … Therefore, we are very open at the beginning and throughout the semester in discussing our expectations for the course, the teaching, learning, and assessment methods planned for the course, and how to be successful in the course.” (p. 132)

Reference: Messineo, M., Gaither, G., Bott, J., and Ritchey, K. (2007). Inexperienced versus experienced students’ expectations for active learning in large classes. College Teaching, 55 (3), 125-133.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, November, 2007.

Maryellen Weimer is the editor of The Teaching Professor, and a Penn State Professor Emeritus of Teaching and Learning.