Big-class energy: how to get large groups learning by doing, not just listening

Charlie Reis shares advice on successfully teaching large cohorts by getting students actively involved in learning activities rather than passively listening

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Xi'an Jiaotong - Liverpool University 

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 
29 July 2021
Advice on teaching big classes by getting students doing rather than listening
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Like them or love them, large groups are a reality for many teachers. So here are some ideas about how to manage large online cohorts and flow with big-class energy, based on my experience.

Reading is not teaching

There is little point in reading to students what they could read themselves, especially online where competition for attention is fierce. If you must read – for example, a small passage that you want to share exactly as it was expressed – check if anyone is listening. Bad classroom teaching is often worse online, both in synchronous and asynchronous modes.

Lecturing is for teachers, not learners

Listening, watching and reading are not the only ways to learn. People learn by articulating, questioning, negotiating, investigating, producing and practising. In fact, studies have shown that learning by listening becomes radically ineffective after 10 minutes.

Especially in big classes, make sure your teaching involves multiple active approaches to teaching.

This is easier in online asynchronous environments since everything can be carefully structured by the curator. It’s also possible to post shorter videos, readings or podcasts that match course content. Combine these chunks of content with an activity or quiz to allow students to trial and extend their learning.

When teaching synchronous classes in person or online, teachers must stop at regular intervals and let students do something to apply or test their learning.

Imagine teaching acting by acting yourself without allowing your students to try; scholarly activity is not so rarefied that the analogy doesn’t hold. Waiting for students online can feel like a telephone call where no one is saying anything. To manage this, you need a way for students to signal that they are with you but gathering their thoughts. I often instruct them to “type 1 for thinking” or “type 2 for move on” in the group chat to continually check in with my online learners when not actively teaching.

Minimise learning through lurking

While different people’s engagement style may be more central or more peripheral, we don’t want students to just “lurk” online; instead we want them to be actively engaged. Students who participate in their classes are likely to achieve better learning outcomes than those who opt for passively learning.

Try to build in and encourage near constant student interaction when teaching online in order to keep everyone engaged. This may include allowing them to quickly check in with a message in the group chat, giving a quiz or taking a poll.

Counteract the sound of silence

One of the advantages of teaching big groups is the power of lots of people doing the same thing. The sound of a lecture hall as scores of students get their notebooks out and begin to calculate or argue a point is electric. This does not happen online as only one mic at a time is generally audible; however, there are workarounds.

Online teaching has to be more deliberately interactive than classroom teaching to counteract its inherent isolation, so there needs to be more checking in and inclusion of the student voice.

Luckily, video-conferencing software chat functions offer a less formal form of communication; for example, while the lesson is occurring, students can have a conversation in the group chat to quickly clarify concepts or give commentary as they would do in person.

While typing is not ideal, especially for students learning in a second language, it allows students to interact with one another and the teacher in ways not possible in traditional classrooms. They should also be encouraged to use social media as a way of connecting about learning.

Mental-state inferences

The sound of a class or someone’s voice, facial expressions and body language are all key sources of information for instructors to make “mental-state inferences” or assumptions about student learning, and all of which are more difficult to gauge online. Online chat functions offer an alternative channel to judge students’ mental states, as do emoji statuses, but I also recommend proactively checking in with students every few minutes to make sure they are still with you.

I like using shared whiteboards, which create something to which the entire class can contribute. In a large group, this can be tricky. I handle this by allowing the class to vote or locate themselves on a spectrum to get a picture of how the class as a whole is feeling.

Online polling and student response systems (SRS) can be very useful for this type of activity as well, and these generally allow a student to express something while remaining anonymous, which is a concern for students, especially in large groups, as they may not want to stick out of the crowd.

Polls can be an efficient way to analyse class assumptions about content if they are written to check where students might frequently have trouble understanding, allowing an instructor of a large group to make adjustments for learning in real time.

Channel big-class energy

Engagement is sometimes defined as the energy students put back into their learning environment. Getting students to give back online means there must be structures and approaches that deal with the whole class to ensure they aren’t just logging on but are participating in their education. Online teaching is not simple and easy, but as a first step, we need to design away from the passive individual and towards the cohesive, expressive group.

Charlie Reis is director of the Educational Development Unit in the Academy of Future Education at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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