Active Learning in Large Classes: A Teaching Circle Report
This page was guest-written by Jessamy Comer, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts
In Fall 2021, several faculty members came together throughout the semester to discuss how we can facilitate more active learning in large (greater than 35 students) courses. In our initial discussion, we outlined four key areas of interest for the group’s attention:
Generating effective class discussions
Streamlining course management
Promoting active engagement from all students
Developing effective online courses for large courses
Each of our discussions centered around these four themes. We read several articles discussing these topics (references are cited at the end of this report) and shared our own successes and failures with each other. From this discourse, we generated many ideas and suggestions that might aid in producing more effective large classes—and perhaps even in smaller classes, for that matter. In this report, I would like to share some of our insights for each of these areas.
Generating Effective Class Discussions
Class discussions are a common technique used to produce active learning in a classroom. However, in large classes we often find that class discussions are dominated by only a few students whereas many other students remain silent and never contribute to the conversation. We discussed this challenge and created the following suggestions to help produce more effective and evenly distributed discussions:
Identify strong students within the class and encourage them to help lead small group discussions, which can then be brought back together into the larger discussion. Alternatively, if there is funding support, we could hire learning assistants or teaching assistants to serve as discussion facilitators.
Have students break into smaller groups that they consistently use throughout the semester to help build community with a smaller group of peers, whom they may ultimately feel more comfortable sharing ideas with.
Have students submit written responses based on the discussion so even if they do not speak up in class they can still actively participate by sharing their thoughts in writing.
To help alleviate student anxiety about speaking up, it could be helpful to provide the discussion questions to students in advance of class so they can have time to prepare a response, and thus reduce the fear of “on-the-spot” responding.
It may also help to make any grading of discussions a “low-stakes” grade so that students do not feel as anxious about participating
Streamlining Course Management
Large courses also generate more challenges with course management. Grading becomes more time-consuming, and it becomes more difficult to create opportunities for one-on-one interaction with all of the students in the class. We discussed ways to help streamline some of the concerns with course management and generated these ideas:
Generating effective and clear grading rubrics can help streamline grading large amounts of coursework.
Feedback may be required more heavily in the first part of the semester and can then be reduced as the semester progresses and students learn how they need to respond. This is particularly true for online discussion boards.
Creating a “course mechanics” discussion board on myCourses where students can ask questions about pragmatics of the course can help limit the number of emails the instructor receives. If the instructor posts the answers to the questions on this board on myCourses, students can check the discussion board before sending an e-mail to the professor. Students may even answer each other’s questions in this format.
An additional way to limit emails asking for clarification on assignments could be to record yourself explaining all of the details of an assignment and then post that recording on myCourses.
When preparing a review session, you could have students turn in their questions in advance. Then you can organize the review session based on common questions.
Producing Active Engagement from All Students
Similar to our discussion on generating effective class discussions, we also talked about how to ensure that all students are actively engaged in all aspects of the class. In large classes, it becomes easy for students to “hide,” and not actively engage with the course material. We can help to reduce this problem with the following suggestions:
Students sometimes seem distracted by their technology (phones, laptops, etc.), so one suggestion was to limit their access to these devices during class. Or, as a less extreme option, you might consider telling students to put all technology devices away but allow for a “technology break” mid-way through the class to allow them a minute to check their devices and ease their anxiety about not checking their devices.
Especially when classes are early (such as 8:00am classes), it might be helpful for a faculty member to increase the energy level in their “performance” in front of a class. It might also be helpful to change the task every 15 minutes or so to help hold attention through the full class period. One task could be checking for understanding, which could involve collecting written responses, reviewing big themes, and responding to common concerns.
We could produce more physical activities in class, such as moving around the room (select one side of the room to stand on as a response) or raising their hands (left or right) as different response patterns.
We discussed social-emotional discussion boards, which are online discussion boards targeted at helping build community within the classroom. These boards can ask sillier questions (“Which is best: tacos or burritos?”) as a way to generate friendly conversation between students. It sort of serves like a “water cooler conversation starter” that builds community within the class.
We also discussed innovative technology techniques to enhance active engagement in course activities such as iClickers, TopHat, Poll Everywhere, Flipgrid, and Kahoot [Note: The CTL only supports iClicker, but you are welcome to use the other tools]. These can help to make classes more interactive, but they can also take more time to set up. These can be particularly effective for students who experience social anxiety and do not want to speak up in class. They may feel more comfortable participating in these anonymous polling activities.
Developing Effective Online Courses for Large Sections
Finally, we discussed how to make an online course effective for a large class. We mostly focused on hosting online discussions, and we had several suggestions:
We have had success in the past with prompts that bring in a real-life example of a topic for discussion and ask students to respond to them (such as a news article, court cases, etc.). We also have had success with a video demonstrating a concept and asking students to respond to the video.
In terms of responding, we suggest that the instructor have a presence but not to dominate the conversation.
One technique that has worked well in the past is to produce a weekly video of the top 5 responses to the post, which gives students feedback and acknowledges their contributions to the class. The video could also include a response summary that addresses common questions or concerns raised in the posts.
It might also help to select students to serve as moderators of discussions to help reduce any anxiety about being highlighted by the instructor. However, the quality of the moderation may vary quite a bit, depending on the student leader.
Overall, our teaching circle concluded that large classes can pose many unique challenges for instructors, but with some creativity and innovation they can be a place for fulfilling and engaging learning of the course material.