Teaching at scale: Reaching all your students in large classes

Heather McQueen explains how lecturers can fulfil their responsibility to facilitate learning for all students, particularly in large classes where individual student contact is minimal

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University of Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh
19 July 2021
Advice on teaching large classes to try and keep all students actively engaged in learning
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During the 2020 pivot to online teaching, most lecture content was delivered as pre-recorded videos. Many colleagues who followed this up with live, if remote, sessions discovered for themselves that allowing students to prepare at their own speed, before interacting during contact time, provides a more satisfying experience for both parties than delivering a 50-minute oration to a sea of sleepy faces.

Enthusiasm for video lectures may, therefore, be an opportunity for reform towards the flipped lecture model, whereby moving content into the preparation stage makes room in the contact sessions for deeper, active learning. However, active learning is not achieved simply by changing the mode of delivery. Whether student learning continues to rely on video lectures or reverts to a more traditional approach, now is a good time to pause and consider how our lectures are received and interpreted by students, and whether they best support meaningful learning, particularly within large classes where individual students are harder to reach. 

Problems of poor engagement, such as surface learning and attend now-revise later attitudes, that plague traditional didactic lectures are unfortunately not confined to the lecture room. Neither are they criticisms of student attitude. A lecturer delivering a long list of facts and details, whether in a live lecture or via video, is inadvertently sending a message to students that this is a list of things you should regurgitate for the exam. Many students simply do not have the educational experience or learning tools to do anything else with this information. 

Our students need help to understand what they should do with “content”, how to engage and find their own interests, and how to take responsibility for their own learning. Our teaching needs to be student-centred. What we plan to do during teaching is less important than, and needs to be designed to drive, what students will do to learn. This mindset is easy to adopt with a handful of students, but needs to be applied in classes of hundreds of students who have important needs for engagement and community. 

Some things that can be done with large or small classes, whether online or live include: 

  • Design “lectures” around clear learning objectives, three or fewer per lecture, that describe what the student should be able to do as a result of the lecture, not which facts they should learn. Use Bloom’s taxonomy verbs for learning objectives to raise the educational challenge and select testable verbs such as “organise”, “compare” and “appraise”, which convert directly into assessment tasks, rather than “understand”.

  • Badge content, for preparation and during live sessions, into discrete sections or short videos of about 10 minutes for each learning objective. The content should provide necessary tools or information, but ideally should leave the student some thinking to do to fulfil the objective.

  • Be creative with preparation, taking it beyond video watching. A variety of tasks will better engage your learners. This can be an opportunity to get students used to required reading. It is also possible to integrate quiz questions into your lecture videos using software such as Kaltura, or to make some fairly simple digital interactive learning resources using free tools such as H5P, or more sophisticated ones using software such as Articulate Storyline 360. Simply requiring reflection on a probing instructor-posed question is good for engagement. 

  • Ask students to do something in preparation that will advance their own personal learning. At the end of each learning objective section ask students to identify their own questions with respect to the learning objective. These student-posed “quecture questions” can follow a three-minute “think, type, talk” routine during lectures, with questions shared within the class via a personal response system such as Tophat, before discussing with peers. These discussions reflect student interest or need rather than an instructor’s thoughts, and provide an opportunity for all students to feel included and heard during class. Students report that this technique to personalise learning and increase responsibility for their own learning is helpful, and there are proven links with improved learning that are most marked for poor-performing or educationally disadvantaged students.  

  • As in live lectures, instruct students watching video lectures to pose their own questions for each learning objective on padlets or similar online posting boards, embedded in the virtual learning environment beside lectures. Students can and do interact with each other’s questions on the padlet.  

  • Engagement with the “own question” strategy throughout the course can be encouraged by awarding about five per cent assessment for each student’s best question, alongside an account of how it was addressed. 

  • Follow up. Comment on student-posed questions during live sessions and use these questions to intentionally structure further interaction that is relevant to the students. 

Effective student-centred teaching, irrespective of the mode or size of the class, requires clarity, structure, challenge, personalisation and interaction. If you really want all your students to learn, involve them.

Heather McQueen is professor of biology education at the University of Edinburgh

The student-posed questions or ‘quecture’ strategy was first reported in a 2016 teaching matters blog: Teaching at scale: Improving student engagement through Quectures 

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