Active teaching and learning in large college and university classes (summary)

(from: C. Mulryan Teaching large classes at college and university level: challenges and opportunities. Teaching in Higher Education. Vol. 15, No. 2 April 2010, 175-185).

The need for active learning by students in tertiary education settings and the placing students at the centre of the learning process in this context has been emphasised by many

Decades of research on teaching and learning have highlighted the importance of active teaching and learning at all levels of education. The challenge is to find ways to do this within the context of large college classes.

Active learning does not have to mean the demise of the lecture (Machemer and Crawford 2007). What it does mean is that opportunities for students to engage in reflection, analysis, synthesis and communication in the context of their learning need to be included in all teaching approaches, including the lecture (Fink 2003).

Specific recommendations and suggestions trying make teaching and learning more active in large college classes

  • Brainstorming;
  • short writing activities followed by class discussion;
  • quick surveys;
  • think pair chare;
  • formative quizzes
  • debate;
  • role playing;
  • student presentations;
  • the insertion of brief demonstrations during a lecture;
  • the feedback lecture which consists of two mini lectures separated by a small-group study session built around a study guide;
  • the guided lecture in which students listen to a 20—30-minute presentation without taking notes, followed by their writing for 5 minutes what they remember and spending the remainder of the class period in small groups clarifying and elaborating the material;
  • ask students to pause for 2 minutes three times during the lecture to consolidate their notes (student learned significantly more);

Innovative ways of achieving quality closure to a teaching session have been suggested including:

  • asking students to write down a brief statement of the mail point of the lecture
  • to provide questions or test problems related to class content
  • to make suggestions for course improvement. This form of feedback can be used as a type of formative assessment of course effectiveness and as a basis for future course planning. It may also act to focus students’ attention on course content and as an accountability measure.
  • Cooperative learning is regarded as an important element of active teaching and small-group cooperative work during teaching sessions has been recommended in the context of large-class teaching at college level.
  • Small-group work can contribute to effective teaching and learning by promoting cognitive elaboration, enhancing critical thinking, providing feedback, promoting social and emotional development, appreciating diversity and reducing student attrition.
  • Advancements in the use of technology to enhance teaching of large groups at tertiary level have also taken place in recent years with opportunities being provided for: online availability of course materials, discussion opportunities, feedback to students and assessment.
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