Large Lecture: Active Learning
Large lecture courses are a staple in many disciplines, varying in size from 40 students up to 400+. They are often viewed as an effective and economical way to guide students through foundational courses, and when delivered by a talented instructor, they can even be inspirational. However, large lectures have been increasingly criticized as ineffective for a variety of learners. For instance, students who arrive at college well-prepared are likely to find large lectures boring, while students who are less prepared for university-level learning are sometimes frustrated when they are unable to ask questions during class.
To address these critiques, instructors have turned to course configuration alterations, including pairing large lectures with small group discussions or embedding learning assistants, usually students who passed the course successfully, into the course to hold office hours and lead homework sessions.
Other instructors are increasing student engagement by introducing active learning practices borrowed or adapted from discussion classes during large lectures. In "Learning that Lasts a Lifetime: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer," Diane E. Halpern and Milton Hakel (2002) observe that "what professors do in their class matters far less than what they ask their students to do." Active learning, when employed intentionally, can turn a large lecture classroom into an engaging learning space.
At the heart of active learning in the large lecture classroom is focusing "your lecture on analyzing issues or problems, rather than on conveying factual information" (Berkeley). Students will learn factual information more readily when they are asked to apply it to real world scenarios. In the Quick Tips section below, check out ways to make problem-based active learning part of your large lecture class.
Quick Tips and Resources
- Rotating index cards. On the first day of class, have students fill out a 3 x 5 index card with their name. You or your TA can then rotate through the index cards, asking each student to participate in turn.
- Think/pair/share. After providing context, ask students to solve a small problem or develop an opinion by having them ponder it on their own and then pair up with a classmate to come to a consensus. You can then call on a few pairs to share their responses before moving on to the next context/question.
- Brief lecture/feedback/Q&A. In this model, the instructor lectures for 5-10 minutes, then asks students to write a question they have about the material on a 3 x 5 index card. They pass it to the person in the row behind or to the side of them. Students then spend a few minutes trying to answer the question. You can follow up by asking them to share some of the questions or you can link this exercise to think/pair/share by having students discuss their questions and answers with someone sitting next to them.
An approach that mixes lecture with problem-solving is supported in much of the contemporary research on large lecture pedagogy. For more information, see the resources below.
- Buckley, Geoffrey L., et al. "Adding an "Active Learning" Component to a Large Lecture Course." Journal of Geography, vol. 103, no. 6, 2004, pp. 231–37.
- Tinkle, Theresa, et al. "Teaching Close Reading Skills in a Large Lecture Course." Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Culture, and Composition, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 505–35.
- Walker, J.D., Sehoya H. Cotner, Paul M. Baepler, and Mark D. Decker. "A Delicate Balance: Integrating Active Learning into a Large Lecture Course." Life Sciences Education, vol. 7, no. 4, 2017, 361-367.
- Halpern, Diane F., and Milton D. Hakel. "Learning That Lasts a Lifetime: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer." New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 2002, no. 89, 2002, pp. 3–7.