EFFECTIVE TEACHING AND LEARNING IN LARGE CLASSES
The expansion in enrolment in higher institutions in Africa in the midst of limited resources translated in the 1980s and 1990s into more numbers in classes. The phenomenon of large classes is fast becoming one to be contended with in most higher institutions in the region. The outlook for the future? Many more large classes. But of course, large classes are found in institutions the world over. Since we cannot wish large classes away, we have to devise techniques for delivering good quality education in such settings. This module is to assist those teachers who have responsibility for teaching large classes to do so with a smile!
We often think that learning occurs in proportion to class size: the smaller the class, the more students learn. However, while research shows that small classes provide more opportunities for feedback and discussion than large classes, as well as greater student satisfaction, it does not suggest that class size is necessarily a correlate of student learning. What counts is not the size of the class, but the quality of the teaching. Research suggests that the key to effective instruction and student learning, regardless of class size, is engaging students in active learning.
At the end of this module, you should have:
What is a Large Class?
Putting first things first, the question to be addressed as we start our study of this module is "what is a large class?" This question was put to some senior academics attending a UNESCO Regional Workshop on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya. Here are excerpts of views expressed.
What are other views on large classes? There is no agreed definition of a large class in the literature, nor should there be. One persons large class is what some others consider as regular, small or normal. Some teachers simply define "large" as "too many students to learn names by the end of the term or semester." Whether something feels like a large class is partly a matter of the resources put into teaching it and of the skill employed by the teacher. For example, a social science lecturer who works alone with a class of 40-50 and who grades students on coursework essays and essay-type examinations finds this to be a large class. However, a language lecturer may not think 50 students makes for a large class. So, lets say that a large class is one that feels large and that a sign of this will often be that you feel that the size of the class stops you from working in your preferred way. This module is about making large classes feel smaller; about weakening feelings that the number of students is disempowering the professor; and about helping students to feel better about the large classes that are likely to greet them in their first year at the higher institution.
For our purpose, we suggest that a large class is one that feels large. Signs that the class is large can be:
One thing is sure. Whether we have a working definition or not, the phenomenon exists. Since we have identified some of the characteristics, we should now proceed with how to cope with it.
Reflect on the concept of a large class. Organise a discussion in your department on the meaning of a large class. What are the main similarities and differences in the definitions provided during the discussion?
How Does Class Size Make a Difference?
Studies on the effects of class size have been conducted since the 1920's. Results have often been mixed, with some methods of instruction favouring small classes and other methods being as or more effective in large classes. Large classes are as effective as small classes when the goals involve learning factual information and comprehending that information. When traditional achievement tests are used to measure learning, large classes compare well with smaller classes.
Smaller classes have been found more effective when instructional goals involve higher level cognitive skills including application, analysis, and synthesis. Smaller classes provide for greater contact between students and lecturer, which appears to be most needed for students with low motivation, those with little knowledge of the subject matter, or those who have difficulty grasping conceptual material. Smaller classes are also more effective than large ones in affecting student attitudes. In sum, the optimal size of a class depends on the instructional goals being pursued. The main advantage smaller classes have over larger ones is that they provide students with greater opportunities for interaction with subject matter, with the professor and with one another.
Now to the down side of large classes. Teaching large classes has been found to adversely affect morale, motivation and self-esteem of teachers. Although many teachers could manage a class of almost any size successfully, this could often be at the expense of the teacher's own well being and the range of learning experiences offered to students. Many teachers of large classes feel they spend too much time on organising and managing class activities and not enough on meeting the needs of individual children. Large classes and overcrowded classrooms have negative effects on students' behaviour and learning.
Some other problems with large classes are:
Table 5.1 gives some comparison between small and large classes.
Table 5.1 Comparing Large and Small Classes
Teachers' views on teaching larger and smaller classes
|Larger classes||Smaller classes|
|Students receive less individual attention||Students receive more individual attention|
|A more restricted range of teaching and learning activities||Flexibility to vary teaching and learning activities|
|Whole-class teaching sometimes employed for control and keeping students on task||Whole-class teaching employed when appropriate to the activity|
|Group work hard to manage because of too many or too large groups||Group work can be employed effectively and flexibly|
|Restricted opportunities for student assessment and individual feedback||Better quality assessment and feedback to students|
|Limitations to practical activities||More opportunities for active learning|
|Teachers work extremely hard to offset the effects of larger class size||More reasonable workloads enabling teachers to put their energies into meeting the needs of students|
No doubt these obstacles are numerous. Since we cannot wish large classes away, we have to devise techniques for coping and ensure that our students benefit from participation in a large class. Let us now examine how we go about this.
Should we organise learning experiences for small classes and large ones in the same way? Clearly not. Since the demands of large classes are different from those of small classes, we need to prepare our programme to take the differences in demands into consideration. What demands are we talking about here? We are referring to the demands of space, equipment, and the demands of evaluation. We are proceeding with the assumption that our objectives for the course or programme are the same irrespective of whether or not we are faced with a large class or a small class.
At the end of this Unit, you should be able to:
Taking Demand of Space into Consideration
The learning experiences we have planned for our students in a course for example in science or the languages need not be watered down on account of presentation to a large rather than to a small class when space comes in as a limitation. Space here could mean lecture room, laboratory or workshop space. Our institution probably has room to accommodate 50 students for the course. In the next several years, we have been compelled to enrol 300 students for the same course. Or we have been asked to prepare a new programme for a course which has an outlook of high enrolment, yet space in our institution is limiting. Taking another example, a rather common one, how do we plan for many of our introductory courses that have high enrolment but whose space allotment for lectures and practicals is tight and choked? In all of these, we should not take any activity out of the normal programme of work. What we need to tinker with is how we take full advantage of the space limitation. But how do we do this?
How should we plan for introductory courses that have high enrolment but whose space allotment for lectures and practicals is tight and choked? How do you take full advantage of space limitation in your institution to address the space requirements of large introductory classes?
Taking Demand of Equipment into Consideration
So we probably have ample space but equipment is short and unable to go round the large number of students. For example, we have 120 language students for equipment fitted for 35 students in a language laboratory. Also an engineering workshop with equipment for 30 students; but here we are with 75 students. As we agreed, course content remains the same.
How do you organise and implement learning experiences when your class is large and equipment is in short supply?
Taking Demand of Evaluation into Consideration
We expect that the progress of students in a large class should be monitored and reported upon with a rigour that is similar to that of students in a relatively small class. We expect that every student in the large class should have opportunities of doing assignments, of doing tests and of asking questions in class and of having a feedback on his or her performance.
How do we plan our programme to take the large number of students into consideration while evaluating large classes?
Organising Practical Work for Large Classes
If there is one issue that keeps teachers in higher institutions nervous when confronted with large classes, it is how to run practical sessions with the same fervour as they do for small classes. It is sad to note that many give up and do either of two things. One, skip the practicals entirely. The second option is to run what is commonly called "theory of practicals" sessions. In these sessions, students go through dry labs and learn only the theoretically underpinnings of the scheduled practical work. These two approaches kill the inquiry spirit of science and fail to guarantee Africa the development of a crop of high-quality, Nobel prize-winning scientists. In one breath, we want to advance rapidly in science and technology, in another breath, we ask our higher institution teachers to teach science to large numbers of students in laboratories that cannot accommodate large numbers. How do we maintain a balance in this context? Experts at the Regional Workshop on Higher Education at Moi University in Kenya and at a similar workshop in Lagos State University, Nigeria reached agreement on these strategies:
Cooperative Group Work
In a large class, assigning a set of materials to individual students for practical work is hardly feasible. Grouping students in the laboratory or workshop becomes an attractive option. Setting up groups is not as easy as some think. It is not enough to randomly assign students to groups without some defined criteria. Studies e.g. Okebukola (1992); Johnson and Johnson (1996) have shown that cooperative-learning groups perform better in science practical skills than individualistic and competitive groups. In setting up cooperative-learning groups, researchers have suggested mixing on the basis of ability level, gender and other discriminating variables. How do you achieve this? The following steps could serve as a guide.
Use of the stations approach
This technique assumes that materials and equipment are available only for a small fraction of the students and that all experiments for the semester should be carried out by every student. After checking out the functioning equipment for each experiment, the teacher proceeds to set these up as "work stations". Thus, every station is dedicated to a specific experiment. If there are seven experiments listed for the semester in say, a physics course, there will be seven stations, clearly labelled in the physics laboratory. What next? The next thing is to prepare a practical time-table for the use of the laboratory. If each station is to be used by three students, only 21 students are then scheduled for practical work at a time. Two of such sessions can be held in a day. Thus, 42 students will have practical experience in a day. Yet, we have 75 students. This means we have to run the sessions on two days. The third thing to do is to assign students to stations and to sessions and to paste the roster. The stations approach is ready to run! Will the sessions run automatically? Definitely not. The teacher and the technicians need to set up every station before the start of every practical session. They also need to monitor progress of the students during the practical sessions. And of course, grade lab notes of the students after each practical session.
The Rotary Approach
This is similar to the stations approach except that the same set of experiment is carried out every practical session. The rotating aspect is the student group. In the engineering workshop with equipment for 10 student groups, but with 30 student groups to contend with, students will do the same experiment in three groups. Time-table schedule will need to be developed by the teacher indicating student allotment to groups and when which group will undertake their practicals in the workshop. It is often useful to keep a set of equipment as backup in an event of breakage or damage. The number of students in each group should be small (between 2 and 4) to enhance greater student contact with experimental materials. The advantage of the rotary approach over the stations approach is the greater ease of set-up and monitoring. In the rotary approach, the lecturer and technical assistants deal with a uniform set of equipment at a time and are able to follow progress of students in the groups using the same set of criteria. Independent work is fostered in the stations approach. This gives it an edge over the rotary approach.
Use of Projects
Practical work for a large number of students can be turned into a good avenue for enquiry and for developing scientific skills. Rather than run all the practicals designed for a course in a straight-jacket, cookbook-like way, we can denote some of the experiments as projects. In this case, students have to proceed in an open-ended way using problem-solving approaches. They design and implement their own plans for addressing the research questions and take ownership of their procedures and results. Students have to look for their materials and may acquire improvisation skills in the process. Thus, while some of the experiments for the course can be designed by the teacher and implemented using the co-operative-learning group, station and rotary approaches, some others can be in the form of projects assigned to students.
Sharing Resources with Nearby Institutions
With acute shortage of equipment and materials in the face of large numbers of students, demonstration is an option for practical work, maybe not the best. There could be four types of demonstration- teacher demonstration, student demonstration, teacher-student demonstration, student-student demonstration and guest demonstration. In teacher demonstration, it is the teacher that presents the experiment to the class while a student who had practised the experiment conducts the student demonstration. You may wish to consider asking a woman in the class to lead the demonstration. Or a disabled student who has agreed to lead. In the teacher-student model, two people are on stage - the teacher and a student; while two students (male and female preferably) conduct the student-student demonstration. A guest teacher can also be requested to present the demonstration of the experiment to the class.
Try out the approaches to practical work suggested above. From your record of the effectiveness of the approaches, rank them in the order of suitability for your needs, objectives of the course and preference of your students.
Promoting Equity in Large Classes
When conducting large classes, we should give consideration to promoting equity along the lines of gender and physical and learning disabilities. More often than not, inequity is accentuated in large classes and disadvantaged groups tend to suffer inattention leading to learning problems. In a large class with few women, the sheer number of men tends to reduce to the barest minimum, the chances of class participation of the women if not deliberately induced by the lecturer. Disabled students are often sidelined and given scant attention in a large class of normal students. Low ability students can also be buried in the crowd. The message here is that the lecturer needs to recognise that his or her class is mixed in terms of student characteristics and efforts need to be made to engender participation of all categories of students. This will mean identifying such groups and making deliberate efforts to involve them in class work- in asking and answering questions, in group work and in leading discussions. (Please refer to Modules 9 and 10 for techniques for empowering women and students with special learning needs).
Large classes are not necessarily less effective than smaller ones, but they do require more conscious effort and planning. Like other classes, large classes work best when students take an active interest in the subject, and when teachers personalise their presentation. However, while these basic principles of good teaching apply in large as well as small classes, the sheer number of students in a large class can magnify some problems that might be much more manageable in a smaller class. For example, an occasional late student or two in a class of forty is not a big problem--and if one student comes late to class repeatedly, it is easy for the teacher to initiate a conversation after class to find a way to resolve the problem. In a class of four hundred, however, late students can be more plentiful and disruptive. They could also be more elusive after class.
At the end of this unit, you should be able to:
Teaching Large Classes
A teacher with responsibility for teaching a large class, will find the following tips useful.
Large classes require more advance preparation and structure than small classes. Lapses in the flow of the class, while collecting thoughts or locating instructional materials, can result in loss of student attention. Before the course begins, prepare or identify a variety of instructional aids, demonstrations, and activities to support each meeting of the class. Prepare a syllabus that includes outlines for each class meeting, all project and activity descriptions, and handouts for the entire course. Provide structure to the content, and use the structure to organise each lesson. Inform the students of that structure. Taking roll or distributing materials during class is not recommended for large class situations. Student materials or instructions needed for a specific class should be made available prior to class or located so that students may obtain them with as little disruption as possible.
Connect with your students
It is important to appear approachable in large classes. Build rapport with your students, and recognise the individuality of each student. Move among them when talking. Increase student access to you by getting to class early to listen to their questions, comments, or complaints. Begin by inviting students to call out something they know or recall about a topic. Display the responses as an introduction to the day's activities. Address some of the anonymity students feel in large classes. Try to learn some names, and call on those you know by name. Learn something about as many students as possible. Ask for a few volunteers each day to help with demonstrations and activities and throughout this process learn some student names.
Provide a variety of experiences
It is appropriate to vary the type of instruction in large classes to encourage discussion, interaction, and involvement. Do not attempt to lecture the entire period. Actively involve students during at least a small part of every class meeting. Form groups of three or four to discuss a problem or work on a task for a few minutes. Have a question and answer period at the beginning or end of each class.
Be aware that students are often reluctant to ask or respond to questions in large classes, and it is often very difficult to hear their comments in large lecture halls. Try to be accepting of all questions and responses from students, and paraphrase or repeat every question or response. Provide hand-held microphones if acoustics are poor. Invite students to write questions or comments on index cards and give them to you at the end of class. Increase the wait time after you ask a question. Encourage students to indicate in some way when the pace of the class is too fast or too slow.
Obtain and use feedback
Students in large classes are often reluctant to communicate difficulties they are having with a course or the teaching strategies. Employ informal assessment techniques frequently to obtain student perceptions and suggestions. Use this information as a basis for making small changes in your teaching behaviour before the course is completed. Inform your students if you make a change as a result of their suggestions. Hold weekly meetings with teaching assistants, or small groups of students, to discuss student reactions to your teaching and the course. Ask individual students after each class meeting how the course is progressing. Provide a suggestion box, or have an envelope attached to your office door where students may leave comments about you or the course.
Create a Small-Class Atmosphere in a Large-Class Setting
One of the challenges of large classes is overcoming the anonymity and distance that can exist between teacher and students. If students are to be actively involved in and feel personal accountability for the learning process, they must be more than anonymous spectators and passive recipients of information. In order to facilitate discussion, feedback, and active learning, the teachers of large classes can work to create the kind of group identity and individual rapport that make smaller classes so effective and enjoyable. The following techniques can foster a more comfortable and productive learning environment in large classes.
Personalise: Learn and use the names of your students, even in a large class. As difficult as this is, it goes a long way toward personalising the class.
Include Active Learning Strategies: This can be done by using 2-minute dyad discussion groups, asking students to share personal experiences related to course content, formalising study groups, giving group assignments, using peer feedback groups, and asking students to write answers to discussion questions before class begins.
Give feedback early and often: Students need to know how they are doing, particularly in a large class. After every fifteen minutes of lecturing, ask students to discuss a thought question with the person next to them and have two or three students tell their response to the whole class. After lecturing for half the class, ask students to write the most important themes you have mentioned; write your answers on the overhead and let them compare their lists with yours.
In a large class, the teacher must change the method of teaching to accommodate the number of students. Here are some suggestions to make large classes more interactive:
Lecturing Large Classes
Many teachers settle for the lecture method when faced with a large class. To them, it is the line of least resistance! While some present the lecture in a rather dull manner, some make their lectures exciting. Here are a few things teachers who succeed with lecturing large classes do.
Implementing good practices in teaching large classes
Making Exercises Count in Large Classes
A technique you can count on when teaching a large class is the in-class exercise. As you lecture or go through a problem solution, instead of just posing questions to the class as a whole and enduring the ensuing time-wasting silences, occasionally assign a task and give the students anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes to come up with a response. Anything can serve as a basis for these exercises, including the same questions you normally ask in lectures and perhaps some others that might not be part of your current repertoire.
In the exercises you might sometimes ask the students to write responses individually, sometimes to work in pairs or groups of three, and sometimes to work alone and then to form pairs and combine and improve their individual responses. ("think-pair-share"). The more you vary your methods, the more interesting the class tends to be. Whichever approach you use for the exercises (individual, pairs, groups, or think-pair-share), at least some of the time you should call on groups or individuals to present what they came up with, perhaps landing disproportionately on students near the back of the room so they know they cannot hide from you there. If you never do this, students will have little incentive to work on the exercises when you assign them and many would not, but if they think they may be called on, they would not want to be embarrassed and so you will get 90+ percent of them actively involved in what you are teaching.
The principal benefit of these exercises is that they get students acting and reflecting, two important ways by which we learn. The students who succeed in a task will own the knowledge in a way they never could if you simply handed it to them, and those who try and fail will be receptive to discovering what they did not know. Group exercises have the added benefit of giving students an opportunity to meet and work with one another, a good first step towards building a sense of community. (You can augment this benefit by periodically asking the students to sit in different locations and work with students they have not been with before.)
You can also use in-class exercises to wrap up a lecture period. Ask the students to write down and hand in a brief statement of the main point of the lecture, or come up with two good questions or test problems related to what you just presented, or tell you how they think you could improve the class. You can scan their responses and quickly see if they got the main idea you were trying to present, identify their main points of confusion, or discover things you could do that would make the class better for them, like giving more examples or leaving material on the board longer or speaking more slowly.
Out-of-class Group Assignments
When you are teaching a class of 160 students and you give individual homework weekly, that's 160 papers to grade every week. If the students complete the assignments in teams of four and only one solution is handed in by each team, that is 40 papers to grade every week. The difference has a major impact on the feasibility of collecting homework at all. Unless you have a squadron of teaching assistants, there is no good way to deal with 160 papers every week, and most lecturers in this situation either give up on collecting homework (which is a pedagogical disaster), confine themselves to multiple-choice problems that require either memorisation or rote substitution, or grade superficially enough for the homework to lose most of its educational value. Even if there are enough teaching assistants to do the job, maintaining quality control on the grading of hundreds of assignments is next to impossible.
Getting students to work on assignments in fixed teams relieves the grading problem but introduces another set of problems, most of which have to do with the fact that the students in a group may have widely varying levels of ability, work ethics, and sense of responsibility. If a lecturer simply tells students to get into groups and do the work, more harm than good may result. In some groups, one or two students will actually do the work and the others will simply go along for the ride. In other groups, the students will parcel out the work and staple the individual products together, with each student understanding only one-fourth of the assignment.
To minimise the likelihood of these situations occurring, the lecturer must structure the assignments to assure that the defining conditions of cooperative learning are met: (1) positive interdependence (if one team member fails to meet his or her responsibilities, everyone loses in some way); (2) individual accountability (each student is held personally accountable for his or her part and for everyone else's part as well); (3) face-to-face interaction, at least part of the time; (4) development and appropriate use of teamwork skills (leadership, time management, effective communication, and conflict resolution, to name a few), and (5) periodic self-assessment of group functioning (What are we doing well as a group? What do we need to do differently?)
Individual accountability is promoted by testing individuals on all of the material covered in group assignments and by factoring individual effort assessments into team project grading. Positive interdependence is fostered by assigning rotating roles to team members (coordinator, recorder, checker), and by offering small bonuses on tests to all members of teams with average test grades above (say) 80.
Using Multiple-Choice Assessment in Large Classes
Since multiple-choice questions are amenable to speedy marking or grading, they are well-suited for use in large classes. Efforts should however be made to minimise, indeed, eliminate cheating. After the examination is taken, students can exchange their scripts in a random manner and made to mark. This ensures early feedback to the students on how well or how badly they have done. Also to the teacher on the level of success or failure of the class on the topics covered by the test.
Other Assessment Techniques
The three suggestions above have faster (and probably better) feedback built in to them. Other ways of giving rapid feedback include:
Summary and Conclusion
We began a study of this module by arriving at an operational definition of a large class. We stated that for the purpose of study of this module, we suggest that a large class is one that feels large. Signs that the class is large can be:
We identified some of the problems of large classes as:
In spite of these difficulties, we found practices that are disposing to meaningful learning in large classes. For practical work, these practices include:
We also described how the large class can be organised for greater student-material-teacher interaction and the issue of assessment in large classes.
Teaching a large class effectively is hard work, but it is possible to do it even if you are not a big-league entertainer. If you make the necessary logistical arrangements far enough in advance, provide plenty of active learning experiences in the classroom instead of relying on straight lecturing, and take full advantage of the power of teams in both in-class and out-of-class work, large classes can come close to being as educationally rewarding as small classes.