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As the NUS student intake grows, it becomes increasingly imperative for teachers to hone and improve the effectiveness of their large-group teaching skills. Consequently, this issue of CDTL Brief looks at how to promote active learning through Large-group Teaching.

November 2001, Vol. 4 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Maximising the Effectiveness of Large-group Teaching: A Few Practical Suggestions
Associate Professor Malcolm H. Murfett
Department of History
Mrs Ulrike M. Murfett
Tutor, Centre for English Language Communication, NUS
& Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University

For the purposes of this article, large-group teaching is defined as giving tutorials to classes of more than 20 students. The main risk of teaching such large groups is that individual student-teacher interaction, a hallmark of good tutorials, is reduced to such a level that the tutorial begins to look like a mini-lecture. If this were to happen, then students lose out on an important element of their academic development—the generation and exchange of ideas, and the intelligent use of information. Given the fact that large-group teaching is increasingly becoming an integral part of the teaching process at NUS, what can be done to minimise this danger?

Several factors that have emerged as being of critical importance in ensuring a varied and enriching tutorial experience for large classes are as follows:

1. Working in small groups

When a teacher is faced with a large tutorial class, his or her main challenge is to ensure that individual members of this class remain engaged in the learning process and do not switch off halfway through the tutorial. In smaller classes, this would not be such a problem as students go into tutorials knowing that they have to contribute actively and cannot hide in the sheer numbers of tutorial participants. With a large tutorial class, the teacher has to create situations that engage all the students simultaneously. A good way of ensuring maximum participation is to break up the class into smaller work groups. Such a method allows the following:

  • Each group works on tasks set by the teacher, much as individuals would have done in the small tutorial classes of the past. In a small group of four or five students, an individual will find it more difficult to ‘opt out’ than if he or she were in a class of 20.

  • The teacher will find it easier to engage with four or five small groups than with 20 or 25 individuals.

  • Once the task is completed, a spokesperson from each group can present the group’s findings, conclusions, or solutions to the rest of the class for discussion and evaluation. To prevent the same students presenting all the time, the teacher has to ensure that the spokesperson for each group varies from tutorial to tutorial.

  • The academic discourse now takes place between these small groups, rather than between individuals.

2. Variation of classroom activities

Variety in activities becomes particularly important when one considers the fact that large-sized tutorials probably have to last for two hours rather than one. Even if the teacher gets students to work in small groups, it is usually impossible to do justice to the small groups’ output in only one hour. Moreover, small groups cannot completely take over from individual performance, because not every task is suitable for group work. Therefore in order to maximise the learning experience of a large class, there has to be some variety in tutorial activities. Although tutorial activities are by nature subject specific, small-group work can be alternated with individual work. Also, the composition and size of the small groups can vary from tutorial to tutorial or can remain fairly constant, depending on the teacher’s preferences.

Another type of classroom activity to consider could be project work, which in the past few years has become a very popular addition to the coursework requirements of many modules in a number of different faculties at NUS. A proliferation of project work has often meant, in effect, that some traditional-style tutorials have had to be forsaken in any given semester so that the teacher can provide a series of practical workshop sessions tailored either to the specific needs of small groups or for the general benefit of all participants regardless of the nature of their topic. Tutors may wish to use a combination of project work and a variety of other individual tasks for their two-hour classes.

3. The physical environment

In order to facilitate large-group teaching, it is important to look carefully at the physical environment in which classes are conducted. In particular, two physical factors can either hinder or encourage the learning process:

  • Seating arrangement: The larger the class size gets, the more important the tutorial room becomes. A great deal of the success of large-group teaching depends on one simple question: can the chairs in a tutorial room be moved or are they screwed together to form rows of seats? In order for the members of small groups to engage in constructive discourse, they have to be able to face each other and prepare written work together. Consequently, a tutorial room with rows of immovable seats or linear seating arrangement is not conducive to the effectiveness of small groups. In contrast, the best rooms will have furniture that allows variations in the sizes and seating arrangements of small groups without compromising the students’ comfort.

  • Technical equipment: Rooms that are used for large-group teaching should minimally be equipped with a large whiteboard, an OHP, and ideally, multimedia facilities. A computer connected to a projector is a real help for the teacher when it comes to both assigning homework to small groups and receiving technical presentations in reply from the students. Where the students are concerned, groups no longer have to make transparencies or handouts in order to discuss their work in class. During their preparation, students do not have to meet physically to get their work done (thereby saving time): they can work on their own computers, communicate with each other through email and save the final product on a diskette, which they can then present in class for discussion. If the classroom computer has Internet access, even a diskette becomes unnecessary.

Large-group teaching can definitely offer enriching learning experiences for our students. But it requires teachers to put some effort into planning the tutorial carefully and the university to provide the facilities that make large-group teaching a real alternative to the small tutorials of the past. Nevertheless in whatever manner the teacher decides to conduct large-group teaching, it is absolutely essential that he or she shows genuine enthusiasm for the task in hand and seeks to encourage her or his students to use their time profitably. After all, motivation is a key weapon in a teacher’s armoury.

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Inside this issue
Keys to Effective Large-group Teaching
Maximising the Effectiveness of Large-group Teaching: A Few Practical Suggestions
Enhancing Learning in a Large-class Session: Some Issues
Large-group Teaching: Adding Value and Optimising Educational Outcomes