students in lecture hall March 7

Low-Risk Strategies to Promote Active Learning in Large Classes

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Faculty who teach large classes confront the long-existing challenge of making their lectures more engaging and meaningful. In this article, I will share some low-risk strategies to help faculty transform lectures into student-centered learning experiences for enhanced learning outcomes.

These active learning strategies can be easily implemented without significant redesign of the class and without an investment in technology. However, toward the end of the article, I offer a few tech-based strategies for engaging your students.

  • Use skeleton handout. Provide students with a handout of the day’s lesson, but intentionally omit some key words and phrases from the slides. Students will have to listen closely during class in order to fill in the missing pieces of information.
  • Physical movement. In a traditional lecture, faculty tend to stand at or behind the podium, interacting with the few students sitting near the front of the room. To engage the whole class, even those students who like to sit in the back, walk around in the classroom from time to time and work to draw in those students sitting on the periphery.
  • Pause and chunk (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987; Di Vesta & Smith, 1979). Researchers have told us that students have very short attention spans and start to lose focus after 10 to 15 minutes in the lecture. To keep students continuously engaged, it is suggested that you chunk the content into smaller segments. For instance, after lecturing for 15 or 20 minutes, switch gears by involving students in mini learning games/activities during the transitional break.
  • Effective questioning. Questioning is one of the most common engagement techniques used by faculty in their daily teaching practice, but have you noticed that it doesn’t always produce the intended outcomes? That’s because many don’t give questions the time and attention they deserve—during lesson planning and the class itself. Below are a few questioning tips to consider.
    • Ask meaningful questions. Factual recall questions are fine for getting the class warmed up, but it’s also important to ask questions at the higher levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). Higher level questions force students to think critically about the content. Questions that have more than one good answer are more likely to lead to interactive discussion.
    • Give “wait time” (Elliot, 1996; Mills, 1995). After you ask a question, wait a few extra seconds before asking for volunteers. By extending the wait time, students have time to process their ideas and produce more thoughtful answers. This is especially beneficial to those who are reluctant to talk in the class. With a few extra seconds to think about and organize the talking points, they will be more confident in their response and more willing to participate.
    • Ask follow-up questions. Too often, after a student answers a question, the teacher explains why it is correct or incorrect and then continues to lecture. Although there is nothing wrong with this practice per se, it does mean we’re throwing away an opportunity to further engage students in higher level thinking. If further discussion is warranted, ask follow-up questions, probe for more information, ask for clarification, request an example, or have students explain the rationale for their answer. Some examples of follow-up questions include: why? what if? how do you know? or what is an example of that?

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small group discussion February 20, 2017

An Activity That Promotes Engagement with Required Readings, Even in Large Classes

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On the first day of class, I often say something like this to my students: “Nothing floats my boat more than great discussion. Nothing promotes great discussion like having completed the readings. And nothing promotes completing the readings like having points attached to it.”


Four Key Questions About Large Classes November 30, 2016

Teaching Large Classes: Course Design and Teaching Checklists

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(1) List your top three or four concerns about teaching large classes         (2) Identify the parts of those concerns over which you have some level of control or capacity to change         (3)…...

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Four Key Questions About Large Classes September 2, 2015

Four Key Questions About Large Classes

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Here’s a set of questions about large classes that I’m thinking we ought to be discussing more than we are.

1. How many students make it a large class? Teachers who do and don’t teach large classes have their opinions, but it’s not clear who has the right answer. Often faculty views seem related to the size of their college or university. I once consulted at a small liberal arts college where I was asked to sign a petition against classes enrolling more than 35 students. At about the same time, I saw a list of the 10 courses most often taken by beginning students at my R1 university. Only two—English composition and physical education—enrolled fewer than 30 students, and most had many more.




April 12, 2013

Moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy in an Introductory Course: What’s Being Done

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The content of many courses is too focused on the facts—those details that students memorize, use to answer test questions, and then promptly forget. That criticism has been levied against many introductory college-level courses, especially by those of us who think faculty are too focused on covering content. But is it a fair criticism? Do introductory courses ignore the higher-level thinking skills, like those identified on the Bloom taxonomy? Is the evidence empirical or anecdotal?


January 22, 2013

Online Homework Systems Can Boost Student Achievement

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Online homework has great appeal for instructors, especially those teaching large courses. By using online assignments, instructors don’t have to collect, grade, and promptly return large quantities of homework assignments. Online programs provide instructors with feedback on student performance that can be used to modify the presentation of material in class. Online homework is also beneficial to students. They get feedback promptly, even more promptly than that provided by very conscientious instructors. Online homework can also be designed so that it allows students to work on areas that frequently cause trouble and/or on areas where the individual student is having difficulty.


April 3, 2012

Active-Learning Ideas for Large Classes: Simple to Complex

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The article that proposes these active-learning strategies is written for faculty who teach large-enrollment biology courses. But large courses share many similarities, and strategies often work well with a variety of content. Even so, most strategies need to be adapted so that they fit well with the instructor’s style, the learning needs of the students, and the configuration of course content.


September 23, 2011

Student Engagement Tip: Give Each Lesson its Own Theme Song

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The challenge of engaging students in a large, introductory political science course, motivated Christopher Soper [article referenced below] to start exploring whether music might help him better connect students and course content. He now opens every class session with a song, and selecting those songs is part of an extra-credit assignment in the course.