The typical large-class setting is generally lecture-centred
and minimises student participation, leaving little opportunity
for effective learning, as students tend to learn by memorising
terms and concepts to pass final exams. Consequently, by fostering
memorisation of lower-level factual contents, the lecture-centred
large-class session is not very successful in promoting long-term
knowledge retention, transfer of knowledge to new situations,
higher order thinking and motivation to learn further (McKeachie,
Nevertheless, more and more teachers are writing about how
they have tried to improve the effectiveness of large-group
teaching by applying a number of small-group techniques in
large classes and making learning a more participatory and
active process. However for small-group techniques to work
in a large-class setting, it is vital that students are allowed
time to adjust to the new situation (Cooper & Robinson,
2000). Students more used to the traditional lecture environment
may not be accustomed to taking part in problem-solving exercises
or brainstorming in small groups as part of the class. They
may feel that learning is an individual exercise and sharing
thoughts in groups may be unfamiliar to them. So the foremost
task for an instructor who wishes to apply small-group work
in the lecture environment is to convince the students that
learning can be done collaboratively and to train the students
to cooperate with each other. For example, Helen Place describes
the process of developing such skills:
Students do not collaborate naturally. They have
been taught to compete, and not work together
I explain what I am doing in the class, I make an analogy
to any sport. I tell the class that I can solve these chemistry
problems and they cantyet. The only way they
can learn to do it is to do it for themselves. I say to
them, I am making you practice, just like practicing
for football. This is directed, coaching practice,
which after a while leads to competence
takes me about half the semester before students really
get into the rhythm of working problems with their neighbors
in the class. (as quoted in Cooper & Robinson,
2000, pp. 2324)
For learning to be accomplished in large classes, three levels
of interaction must be addressed:
To develop effective student-teacher interaction, the teacher
could apply the following during lectures:
- Ask friendly questions, listen carefully, and find something
good to say about even incorrect or off-base
replies. Be willing to wait, even if it seems an eternity,
to get a response.
- Use teaching cases and conduct the class as a case discussion
rather than as a lecture.
- Include an open question/polls section at some point and
ask for votes.
- Pause at critical points, pose a question to students
and ask them to take a few minutes to write down their answers.
By writing something down, each student has a chance to
think about his/her own response ahead of time and they
will feel more comfortable giving comments during a discussion.
- Ask for volunteers to make short presentations and lead
the discussion for a change. Giving students more responsibility
will often make them more motivated to participate in the
- Carry out class research or surveys to understand students
needs in large classes and their deficiencies in comprehending
the subject matter.
- To promote discussion outside the classroom, encourage
students to approach you personally after classes during
office hours, write to you via email and web-based courseware
(e.g. IVLE), and/or submit written response papers.
The student-teacher interaction is often a two-way process.
When the teacher encourages students to participate more actively
in class, students may be more motivated to learn. When they
are more interested in the subject matter, they will ask for
additional information, be more forthcoming in sharing their
own personal experiences in relation to the topic, and will
volunteer to take part in activities. Their attentiveness
and willingness to learn will in turn motivate the teacher
To promote interaction among students in a large class,
first either reduce the class size or break the class up into
smaller groups. Groups can be formed on an ad-hoc or a more
permanent basis and must be given clear directions for the
ensuing group activity. For instance during a lecture, the
lecturer can ask each student to turn to his/her immediate
neighbours to introduce themselves and form temporary small buzz or affinity groups to discuss a question/problem
for a few minutes (Mohanan, 2000). In contrast, students may
be encouraged to form cooperative base groups that
are longer term in nature; in such groups, student members
have the responsibility to provide one another with support,
encouragement and assistance to make academic progress (Johnson,
Johnson & Smith, 1998).
Another highly effective strategy is the jigsaw in which each student in a study group is responsible for
learning a portion of the material and conscientiously teaching
what he/she has learnt to other group members. In this strategy,
the teacher selects the materials, structures the group, and
monitors its activity to ensure quality learning and help
students to summarise and synthesise concepts (Smith, 2000).
The philosophy behind this strategy is encapsulated by Senecas
concept: Qui docet discet, or When
you teach, you learn twice(Whitman, 1988).
Interaction between the learner and the subject content
under study is the process of intellectually interacting with
learning materials that results in changes in the learners
understanding of the subject. Student-material interaction
occurs within a class as well as during the students
individual study sessions. It could be as simple as rewinding
and reviewing part of a videotape for clarification, or as
complex as the process of archival research. Other examples
of interaction with materials include: reviewing and expanding
on lecture notes, looking up definitions in reference books,
reading the materials presented in a course website or IVLE,
and searching the Internet.
The teachers role is to encourage students to frequently
interact with their course materials through completing group
assignments, reaction papers, case studies, and other class
activities on a regular basis. To facilitate student-material
interaction, the teacher should give clear instructions for
the course content and evaluation. In addition, the mode of
delivery/presentation of materials by the teacher is vital
in promoting student-material interaction. For example, things
that can interest and motivate learners include:
- the quality of the lecturers voice;
- the quality of the fonts and graphics in an overhead projector
slide/PowerPoint display and/or in books, study
guides/handouts/other printed matter;
- the pictures and sounds of a television programme/video;
- the text, pictures and sounds of multimedia or World Wide
Teachers often claim that students do not read. To overcome
this obstacle, the teacher could encourage students to adopt
the SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review) approach effectively used by Scott, Buchanan and Haigh (1997).
To promote recall and retention, urge students when working
in small groups to keep written notes of their discussions
that they can later refer to when necessary.
For deep learning resulting in subject mastery to occur,
it is necessary for students to be actively involved in the
learning process (Fosnot, 1989). Hence it is necessary for
all three types of interaction discussed above to take place
so that learning can be achieved in a large-class setting.
If students are unable to interact with course content/materials,
communicate with their teachers, and/or support their peers
and discuss topics with fellow students, the desired learning
outcomes are unlikely to be attained. For a course taught
in a large-class format to be successful, it is essential
for the teacher to promote student interaction with instructors/fellow
students/course materials at different levels and depth, thereby
facilitating the active involvement of students in the learning
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Informal Small-Group Strategies in Large Classes. In
J. MacGregor, J.L. Cooper, K.L. Smith & P. Robinson (Ed.).
Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small
Groups to Learning Communities. New Directions for
Teaching and Learning. No. 81, Spring, pp. 1724.
Fosnot, C.T. (1989). Enquiring Teachers, Enquiring Learners:
A Constructivist Approach for Teaching. New York: Teachers
Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K.A. (1998). Active
Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom (2nd ed.).
Edina, Minn.: Interaction Books.
McKeachie, W.J. (1986). Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for
Beginning College Teacher (8th ed.). Lexington, Mass.:
Mohanan, K.P. (2000). Small Group Teaching in Large
Classes. Ideas on Teaching. No. 9. Singapore:
Centre for Development of Teaching & Learning, National
University of Singapore.
Scott, J., Buchanan, J. & Haigh, N. (1997). Reflections
on Student-Centred Learning in a Large Class Setting. British Journal of Educational Technology. Vol. 28,
No.1, pp. 1930.
Smith, K.L. (2000). Going Deeper: Formal Small-Group
Learning in Large Classes. In J. MacGregor, J.L. Cooper,
K.L. Smith & P. Robinson (Ed.). Strategies for Energizing
Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 81, Spring,
Whitman, N.A. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn
Twice. Report No. 4. Washington D.C.: Association for
the Study of Higher Education.