Friday, January 27, 2012

Small Groups, Large Class Series (Part I)

by Beverly Brehl

"It's just not practical to do active learning in large classes "

Something we often hear from instructors who take our courses or attend our workshops is that active learning sounds great, but it just can't be done in my class. One of the reasons that often comes up for why active learning "just won't work" is because the class is so large. It would be great if I could get the students more engaged and do more than the traditional lecture, but it's just not practical in a large class - there would be too much grading, the room is set up all wrong, I can't manage that many students working in would be utter chaos.

Well, I accept your challenge!

This semester, I am teaching an introductory level Human Development class with 140+ students (which by most standards, I think, counts as a large class). Don't get me wrong - there are days when I lecture. I do try to break up lecture with video clips, questions, think-pair-share activities, etc., but Mondays and Wednesdays are still basically "lecture" days. Fridays, however, are a different story.

Friday is "team meeting" day. At the beginning of the semester, I had students submit topic ideas that they would be interested in pursuing for their term project. Then, I matched people based on the ideas they had submitted. There are 17 groups, with approximately 8 people per group. On Fridays, they meet in class to work on their term projects, which ultimately will be posters on their chosen topic, including relevant research and theory, real-life examples, and a "call to action" where teams provide their advice as to how a particular audience (e.g., parents, teachers, policy makers) should approach the issue at hand. On the last day of class, we'll have a poster session in class, and students will get to review the posters created by the other teams.

Throughout the semester, I will share the ups and downs of incorporating group work into my large class. What have I learned so far? Well, for one, students (even "Millennials") weren't particularly excited about doing group work. On the first day of class, the vast majority of students in my class raised their hands when I asked "Who hates group work?". We then discussed why group work is important (e.g., it's a form of active learning which helps them get engaged with the material, they get a chance to learn from one another, it's a marketable skill that employers in today's job market are looking for). I'll ask them again at the end of the semester, and hopefully I will have convinced a few people that it's a worthwhile activity.

Something else I've learned when doing group work previously (albeit in far smaller classes) is that students are too busy to get together outside of class to meet with their groups. So when creating the course schedule, I made sure to set aside most Fridays for team meetings. This means I can't "cover" as much content in class, and that's something that's true of incorporating any type of active learning into your teaching - you have to use class time to do it, class time that you would have used otherwise to cover additional content. However, if you pay attention to the research on active learning, you'll discover that students learn more and retain that information longer when they're actively engaged than they do in a traditional lecture-style class. So the question is - do you want to "cover" content, or do you want your students to learn?

For other examples of how to incorporate active learning into your large class, we'll be conducting a workshop on February 10, 2012 entitled "Alternatives to Lecturing in Large Classes". You can register for the workshop now, or if you can't attend, watch for the video and materials to be posted on our website.

1 comment:

  1. Ilse DeKoeyer-LarosJanuary 27, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Great ideas, Beverly! I had not heard of Think-Pair-Share and this sounds like a great thing to do during lectures. I do know those moments after asking a question ("what do you think?") and standing there waiting for a few moments before answering my own question ;). Also thanks for sharing your experiences with group work. I am doing groups in an online class, which poses extra challenges; many students are anxious about it. But I want to stimulate engagement with the class and learning from each other! Just like you, I hope most students will have changed their minds by the end of the semester!