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In this issue of CDTL Brief on Research and Classroom Practices, NUS colleagues discuss ways of student engagement across various disciplines in the University.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Two Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning in Large Classes
Dr Seow Teck Keong
Department of Biological Sciences


Strategies that facilitate active learning are instructional activities that “involve students doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Various strategies and methods that claim to aid active learning have been documented in the literature (Silberman, 1996). However, due the physical constraints of a lecture theatre, many of these suggested approaches are either difficult or impossible to implement in a large class setting.

Nevertheless, I have found that modifying the traditional lecture method using simple approaches that do not deviate very much from conventional classroom methods have been well received by students. These strategies are interwoven with and incorporated into the typical 2-hour lecture in NUS.

One of the more popular strategies I have tried is the bingo-like game for the topic “Energy and Life” under the module LSM1301 “General Biology”. LSM1301 is designed for students with no prior background in Biology and had an enrolment of 577 students in Semester 1, Academic Year 2008/2009. Instead of utilising it for reviewing purposes as suggested by Silberman (1996), it was used to introduce the class to the terminologies that would be covered in the topic. A five-by-five matrix table of 24 blank cells with the middle cell labelled “FREE”, similar to Figure 1, would be distributed to each student at the start of the class.

Figure 1. Sample of the matrix table used in the game

The students would then be shown a list of 24 terms and instructed to randomly fill each of the table’s blank cells with a different term from the list. The students were also told that they could use each term only once. Once the students had completed their task, the definitions of the terms would be read aloud and they would cross out the terms on their tables that they thought would match the definitions that were called out.

The first student to cross out five cells in a row either horizontally or vertically would raise his or her hand and the game would be temporarily stopped. The crossed-out terms would then be checked to see if they were correct. If the terms were incorrectly crossed-out, the game would resume with more definitions being read out until the next student raises his or her hand. If the five crossed-out cells were correct, the student would be declared the winner and he or she would be rewarded with either candies or chocolates. After the game, each of the terms and their correct definitions would be reviewed.

The choice of giving out something sweet as a prize serves as an illustrative tool to connect glucose to cellular respiration, which is the subject matter of “Life and Energy”. The game also reminds students to come to the class prepared—a trait that seems to be lacking among most of them. Furthermore, when the terms appear later during the lecture, students would have already seen the them and I would need less time to explain them.

Another well received strategy is the use of crossword puzzles, which I had tried out in both LSM1301 “General Biology” and LSM1401 “Fundamentals of Biochemistry”. Unlike other biochemistry modules, students enroling in LSM1401 do not need to have a pass in A-level Biology. Thus the class is often a heterogeneous mix of students, including those who have read A-level Biology. Just like LSM1301, LSM1401 has a relatively large enrolment and in Semester 2, Academic Year 2008/2009, there were 420 students in the class.

Unlike the bingo-like game, crossword puzzles were utilised at the end of a series of related topics to help students review the terminologies used. The crossword puzzles (see Figure 2 for an example), were distributed towards the end of the class and students were given sufficient time to complete them.

It is probably not critical but lecturers could decide if the first student who correctly completes the puzzle should be rewarded. There were occasions where I gave out a reward and times where I did not. Although the responses were not significantly different in both cases, students generally love freebies. What is important, though, is to allocate sufficient time to provide and explain the solution to the class.

Figure 2. Sample of the crossword puzzle used in LSM1301.
A similar crossword puzzle was used in LSM1401

Did the bingo-like game and crossword puzzle facilitate active learning and enhance the effectiveness of the teaching process? The following are samples of comments from student feedback on the use of these strategies:

“[He] supplements the lecture notes by providing…a crossword puzzle and a bingo sheet, which enhances learning as it is something out of the norm, allowing students to learn terms and facts in a new manner…”

“…very good that he used the game BINGO in one of the class to make the lecture more fun and interesting and also facilitate our understanding in the topics…”

“…crossword puzzle and ‘bingo’ game for us to know our terms better which I think was very useful…”

“…well engaged through various activities such as the crossword puzzle…to reinforce… or encourage reading ahead despite the large lecture group…”

Both strategies did not incur considerable cost and did not result in major changes to the traditional lecture method. However, the strategies resulted in a significant change in the learning process as perceived by the students.


Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASHEERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Silberman, M.L. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


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Action Research in Teaching
Major Challenges Instructors Face in Teaching Undergraduate Contemporary Life Sciences
Small Group Teaching—Get and Give 100% the ‘Old-fashioned’ Way: Perspectives from the Pathology Classroom
Two Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning in Large Classes
Using Short Stories as an Instructional Tool for Teaching Human Anatomy in the Classroom
Customising Continuous Assessment Exercises