The active involvement of students in lectures is important, even in higher education. Learning is not a passive activity. For large groups of students, however, ensuring active student participation is not simple. We present a few tips and tricks, grouped according to frequently asked questions from lecturers who teach large groups of students.
How can I increase the involvement and attention of students during lectures?
It is not enough to just talk louder, write bigger and make grandiose gestures…although sometimes those things help. (Humber College Centre for Teaching and Learning)
- Make eye contact with the students while teaching.
- Walk through the classroom, and make yourself visible to the students.
- Vary the pace, volume and intonation of your voice.
- Radiate energy and passion for your profession. This motivates students to remain attentive during the lecture.
- Use small activating assignments that are suitable for large groups (e.g. zoom sessions or polling).
How can I assess the insight and comprehension of students?
- Arrange to have a brief application assignment after a theoretical section. One example could be a multiple-choice exercise in which students state their answers by raising their hands or through some other form of voting. This will let you know how many of the have understood the learning content that has been presented.
- ‘Read the classroom’: Try to interpret the students’ facial expressions.
The comprehension of students is often reflected in their non-verbal behaviour. Asking questions is difficult with a large group, and it is often done in a pro-forma manner. When teachers ask, ‘is everything clear?’, students are highly unlikely to ask questions. Murmuring in the classroom is a particularly good signal to a teacher that the students have not understood something. (Lecturer in the Faculty of Law)
How can a large group of students be activated efficiently?
- Use small assignments (e.g. short propositions, application assignments, polls) that students will discuss in small groups.
- Use problem statements and questions as a starting point for a theoretical element, rather than immediately starting with the theoretical explanation.
- Activate students for the most important topics of the learning content: survey the students’ advance knowledge/insight and comprehension.
- Alternate ‘ex cathedra’ sections with short activating assignments every 15–20 minutes.
How can I bring students back on track after using an activating teaching method?
- Make clear agreements in advance concerning how much time the students will have to complete the assignment and how the end of the assignment will be signalled.
- End the assignment on time.
- Use non-verbal signals to indicate that the assignment is ending: use eye contact; move closer to students who are talking; use light (on and off in quick succession) or use sound to bring students back on track.
- Project a provocative statement or cartoon to draw the students’ attention.
Activating teaching methods for large groups
Activating large groups of students in a traditional auditorium is often quite difficult, but definitely not impossible. Below, we present several activating teaching methods that can be applied with large groups of students. These teaching methods can obviously be used for smaller groups of students as well.
- Zoom session
In a zoom session, students perform a brief group assignment (2–5 minutes) in groups of 2–4 students. A gradual decrease in the ‘zoom’ from the student groups is an indication that most of the students have completed the assignment, and that you can start the debriefing. Several students can be called on to present their solutions during the debriefing. At the end of the debriefing, summarise the answers, supplementing them and eliminating any errors as needed.
In a quick-think, students have a few minutes to think about an individual assignment. During the debriefing, designate a few students to present their answers to the assignment. At the end of the debriefing, summarise these answers again, supplementing them as needed.
This teaching method has several variants. For example, group size can be varied by working with groups of three students (think-triangle-share) or four students (think-square-share). Another option is to ask students to note their answers individually before comparing their findings in groups of two (think-write-pair-share). When organising group work, it is advisable to give proper consideration in advance to how the classroom will be arranged so that students can work in groups. It is possible to carry out group work even in an auditorium.
In a poll, the teacher asks the students to vote on a given proposition. The voting can be done by show of hands, the use of coloured cards or with a text-messaging system or voting machines. For this teaching method, it is important to allow the students sufficient time to think between the assignment and the actual poll. During the subsequent debriefing, call on several students to represent the various response options.
- Peer instruction
In peer instruction, the teacher starts by introducing an element of theory. The students then complete an assignment individually, based on the theory. Subsequently, the students vote on the correct answer. They then break into small groups and try to convince the other members of their groups that they are right. After this discussion, the students vote on the correct answer once again. In most cases, a larger majority of the students will have the correct answer than was the case in the first round of voting. This is due to the discussion that they held with their fellow students in the groups. Reasoning and insights are shared. It is therefore important for the questions to assess insight into and comprehension of a given element of theory, and not merely factual knowledge. In addition to emphasising the explanation and elaboration of the correct answer, the debriefing includes details on the incorrect alternatives.
Want to know more?
Idea paper 53: Active learning strategies in face-to-face courses.
Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, ca: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
European University Association (2019). Promoting active learning in universities Thematic Peer Group Report (Learning & Teaching Paper #5). Retrieved from EUA website: https://eua.eu/101-projects/540-learning-teaching-thematic-peer-groups.html
Exley, K., Dennick, R. (2009). Giving a lecture. From presenting to teaching. NY: Routledge.
Horgan, J. (2003). Lecturing for learning. In H. Fry, S. Ketteridge & S. Marshall (Eds.), A handbook for learning and teaching in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 75-90). London: Kogan Page.
For staff members of the University of Antwerp
On the infocenter education you can find some good practices of activating educational practices at the University of Antwerp.
On the infocenter education you can also find some tips and tricks concerning activating students.
The (dutch) book 50 onderwijstips is fully available online (after logging in to Pintra). Tips 1 till 1O deal with activating education.