Faculty Focus


Active-Learning Ideas for Large Classes: Simple to Complex

The article that proposes these active-learning strategies is written for faculty who teach large-enrollment biology courses. But large courses share many similarities, and strategies often work well with a variety of content. Even so, most strategies need to be adapted so that they fit well with the instructor’s style, the learning needs of the students, and the configuration of course content.

The authors of the following list of strategies write that they attempted to “focus … on strategies and activities that typically do not require … a radical reframing of current standard practice, and are therefore more readily accessible to most science educators.” (p. 263) They discuss each strategy in much more detail than space here allows, and they include many references describing experiences with and alterations of these seven strategies.

Questions – These are questions that students discuss. Short periods of discussion occur after every 10 to 20 minutes of lecture, or they can be used to open and close a class session. Students may write ideas about answers, they may talk about answers with those sitting next to them, and they may explain answers to each other. As valuable as it for students to articulate content-related ideas and information, there is a caveat with this approach. “Good outcomes require good questions, and framing good questions is hard.” (p. 263) Closed questions (ones with one- or two-word right answers) have their place, but they are not very effective at promoting student interaction and reflection. Questions and discussion can be used in large classes and can contribute to student learning.

Technology for “on-the-spot feedback” – Clickers engage students with the content and provide instructors with valuable feedback. They are particularly well-suited for large courses, with the cognitive benefits of clickers a function of the quality of questions students are responding to. The goal is to develop those questions that move students in the direction of higher-order thinking.

Student presentations and projects – This article references another article in which 10 to 15 students researched and prepared reports on a “disease of the week.” They prepared materials for fellow students, and findings were also presented in class. Some instructors have used a poster-session model, where a different subset of students prepares and presents a poster to classmates each week. Presentations and projects can also be prepared by groups of students. They can be presented online and review of them assigned as homework.

Learning-cycle instruction models – Here’s a common example of a learning-cycle model: 1) engagement that draws students in with a video clip, provocative question, or other short activity; 2) exploration that uses other learning tasks to focus on the concepts and skills necessary to understand the central topic; 3) explanation that provides more examples and opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding; 4) elaboration that seeks to deepen understanding with applications and implications; and 5) evaluation during which student understanding is assessed. In this model the instructor’s presence is most visible during the explanation step, with students doing much of the work in the other steps, although they do so using instructor-designed tasks and materials.

Peer-led team learning – This strategy uses peers to facilitate learning in small groups and is described in detail in another article in this issue.

Inquiry-based approaches – Here students use simple equipment to do laboratory-type exercises in class. “Despite this necessity for simplicity, students can exercise the intellectual power behind designing aspects of the experiment, predicting outcomes that would lend support to their hypotheses, and analyzing and interpreting their findings.” (p. 265)

Problem-based learning and case studies – These are the kinds of problems that promote learning on a need-to-know basis. They can be formatted in a variety of ways, with students working on the problems in class. At various intervals the instructor might lecture about relevant content or be available to answer questions submitted by the groups.

Biology workshop – This model combines class and lab experiences as students explore a theme that is integrated into the content, activities, and assignments of the course. “Students explore and discover fundamental concepts through asking and answering their own questions.” (p. 266)

Given the continuing presence—indeed increasing prevalence of large courses—those who teach them must explore ways of making them rich learning experiences for students. As this article demonstrates, there are a variety of alternatives, all of which have been tried by instructors who teach large courses.

Reference: Allen, D., and Tanner, K. (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: Seven strategies from the simple to the complex. Cell Biology Education, 4 (Winter), 262-268.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 25.3 (2011): 7.