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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
Enhancing Learning in a Large-class Session: Some Issues
Ms Chandrama Acharya
Research Assistant, CDTL

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, 1986).

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… When 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 can’t—yet. 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…It usually 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. 23–24)

For learning to be accomplished in large classes, three levels of interaction must be addressed:

Student-to-Teacher Interaction

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 class.
  • 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 teach.

Student-to-Student Interaction

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 Seneca’s concept: “Qui docet discet”, or “When you teach, you learn twice”(Whitman, 1988).

Student-to-Material Interaction

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 learner’s 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 teacher’s 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 lecturer’s 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 Web resources.

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 process.


Cooper, J.L. & Robinson, P. (2000). ‘Getting Started: 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. 17–24.

Fosnot, C.T. (1989). Enquiring Teachers, Enquiring Learners: A Constructivist Approach for Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

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.: Heath.

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. 19–30.

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, pp. 25–46.

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.

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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