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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
Large-group Teaching: Adding Value and Optimising Educational Outcomes
Professor Matthew C.E. Gwee
Associate Director, CDTL/Department of Pharmacology
Associate Professor Tan Chay Hoon
Department of Pharmacology

Our primary role as teachers is to facilitate, motivate and enhance student learning. We are accountable to our students in ensuring that the quality of education we provide will enable them, not only to achieve the more immediate goals of a course curriculum, but also to become the useful citizens of tomorrow who can make significant contributions to the nation. In this context, it is not only what we teach but, also, how we teach that will impact strongly on the quality of education we can provide. It is imperative then that we should adopt best teaching practices that will best facilitate, motivate and enhance student learning.

Large-group Teaching and the Lecture Method

To achieve overall educational goals, it is essential then for us to select effective instructional strategies. Large-group teaching (LGT) is often used mainly because it serves as an efficient (but not necessarily always effective) and economic way of delivering instruction to large numbers of students (e.g. 50–500) at a given venue. A common instructional strategy used in LGT is the lecture method—considered a highly traditional, but still widely used, mode of teaching in many institutions of higher learning, including NUS.

Traditionally, the lecture is focused on students learning course content mainly through passively receiving information transmitted by the teacher (the sage-in-centre stage), i.e. essentially a monologue that informs students of what teachers perceive as their learning needs but with little, if any, involvement of the students. A major criticism levelled against the traditional lecture is that often the overwhelming content and scope of lectures lead to information overload that assumes all students “have high working-memory capacities” ¹ . Thus, this will promote rote-learning (memorise, recall, regurgitate in examinations) with consequent intellectual anaemia. Moreover, the traditional lecture tends to create in students a state of high-dependency on teachers for their learning needs.

Although criticisms of the traditional lecture are generally fair comment, it should also be recognised that a dedicated teacher, with mastery of and passion for his subject matter, can deliver a highly enjoyable, captivating and intellectually stimulating lecture that stirs the mind to think deeply and critically. More importantly, such a lecture can even inspire and motivate student learning.

However, even experienced and dedicated teachers have found it difficult to reach this height of quality lecturing which requires much charisma—a gift that not many of us as teachers are endowed with. How then can we still optimise the educational outcomes of delivering a lecture in a LGT environment?

Large-group Teaching: Going Beyond Tradition

More recently, arising mainly from criticisms of traditional teaching practices and with more evidence from research in constructivism, information processing and cognitive development, there is firm recognition that teachers need to actively involve students in the educational process itself in order to motivate and achieve more effective student learning. This represents a fundamental shift in educational paradigm from teaching to learning, in which students need to construct their own knowledge and understanding of materials they are learning and consolidate it within their own cognitive structures. Such an approach to learning is to enhance deep learning that will result in greater mastery of academic content.

Students therefore need to be engaged in active-interactive learning during the instructional process itself which should incorporate small-group inquiry and reflection. It may seem quite inappropriate to apply a small-group learning approach to a LGT environment. However, elements of small-group dynamics have been adapted for and applied to LGT with convincing evidence of much better educational outcomes, including enhancements in retention and recall of information, knowledge application to new and novel situations, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communication and interpersonal skills, co-operative learning skills and motivation of student learning. The active-interactive small-group learning approach also helps to lay the foundation for the development of independent, self-directed, life-long learning skills.

Making Large Classes Seem Small: A Matter of Adaptation and Imagination

The process of active-interactive learning, in the context of large classes, is essentially achieved through the active engagement of two or more students in discussion at various intervals of time during a lecture carefully structured by the teacher. Such discussion teaching-learning sessions incorporate the elements of listening, talking, questioning, responding, reflecting, exchanging viewpoints, debating, writing answers and comments to questions, and reading assignments for class discussion. Thus, students learn through social interaction which compels them to comply with the code of social behaviour and they learn, not only as individuals, but also with and providing mutual support and respect for one another. Peer teaching and learning (‘All teach, All learn’), a powerful learning tool in the educational process, then forms an important aspect of such a large group lecture. Students learning together in small groups therefore help create learning communities that have a critical influence in the development of higher-order thinking.

The Structure Of Small Groups In LGT

Small-group strategies usually used in large-group lectures are classified according to the complexity of the group structure and that of the intellectual problems and tasks. The informal small-group strategies use “brief in-class discussions that begin, end, or punctuate a lecture” ² that involve pairs or teams of students: e.g. in the think-pair-share strategy, the teacher punctuates a lecture with a question, test item, or issue for students to consider briefly (think phase), first as individuals, and then turning to a student sitting nearby (pair phase) to discuss their responses with one another. Then several pairs will share their responses with the class if time permits (share phase). Other informal small-group strategies used have been referred to as think-pair-square, ConcepTest, quick-thinks, minute paper, scripted co-operative learning and concept maps.

The formal small-group strategies are generally extensions of the informal ‘turn to your neighbour’ type with much greater involvement of individual students in the preparation before discussion in pairs or threes, several to-and-fro discussions between small groups and the whole class, as well as specific role assignments to the entire group structure. Permanent, fixed membership groups are also used in order to enhance cohesiveness and the level of discussion. A common strategy used is the individual journal-writing assignments together with the formation of collaborative groups of three or four students who are each assigned to a specific rotational role as reporter, scribe, timekeeper, or critic. Other formal small-group strategies include: in-class project work, jigsaw strategies, structured academic controversy, base groups, problem-based learning, restructured lecture-recitation-laboratory, and eliminated lecture, substitution of hands-on laboratory. Several of the formal small-group strategies require restructuring of large classes to accommodate more complex in-class activities.

Large-group Teaching: Opportunities and Challenges

Incorporating small-group activities in a large-group teaching environment is fast gaining acceptance as an innovative educational strategy that adds value to and optimises the educational benefits and outcome of student learning. It also creates opportunities for teachers to apply best teaching practices that will bring out not only the best in our students, but also the best in ourselves. However, it also poses significant challenges for us as teachers to reappraise our own teaching practices and to enhance our own understanding of how students learn in order to be able to meaningfully shift the educational paradigm from teaching to active-interactive learning and, thus, in further enhancing our role as teachers to that of designer, choreographer and manager of the learning environment.

In our role as teachers, we need to inform and to actively involve our students in the learning process, and also strive to inspire them. Teaching will surely pay dividends if we teachers pay interest. So let’s teach and flourish.

Recommended Reading

S.D. Brookfield. (1987). Developing Critical Thinkers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

C.R. Christensen, D.A. Garvin & Ann Sweet. (Eds.). (1991). Education for Judgment The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

K.V. Erickson & M.T. Erickson. (1979). ‘Simulation and Game Exercises in Large Classes’. Communication Education. No. 28: 224–229.

Jean MacGregor, et al. (Eds.). (Spring 2000). ‘Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 81.

R.L. Weaver & H.W. Cotrell. (Winter 1987). ‘Lecturing: Essential Communication Strategies’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 32: 57–69.


1 J.L. Cooper & Pamela Robinson. (Spring 2000). ‘The Argument for Making Large Classes Seem Small’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 81: 5–16.

Back to the article

2 J.L. Cooper & Pamela Robinson. (Spring 2000). ‘Getting Started: Informal Small-Group Strategies in Large Classes’. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 81: 17–24.

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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