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. 50500) at a given venue. A common
instructional strategy used in LGT is the lecture methodconsidered
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
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 charismaa 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
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
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
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 lets teach
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1 J.L. Cooper &
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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: 1724.