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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Teaching blog - large group teaching

Our Teaching Interest Group and Education Research (TIGER) ran a workshop on large group teaching. TIGER chair Dr Rachel O'Callaghan blogs about the event. You can also watch a recording of the event below.


On 30 June the TIGER group ran a workshop on large group teaching. Teaching large cohorts is a challenge that many of us face and students typically report large classes as being passive and impersonal, I would wager that this experience is shared by many of the lecturers standing in front them. Large classes can be intimidating, difficult to manage (especially when we are faced with disruptive behaviour) and the atmosphere can feel quite flat, we have all experienced the impenetrable wall of silence when we ask a question. Thankfully, there are lots of ways in which we can improve the dynamic and create a positive and interactive environment so that the experience is more valuable for the students and also for us.

Nathalie Lebrasseur began the session by talking about her journey with large group teaching. She emphasised the need to move away from a ‘teaching by telling’ approach and encourage active learning; a PNAS paper published in 2014 that included a meta-analysis of 225 studies revealed that active learning improves students’ performance. So not only does active learning create a more interactive and engaging learning environment, students also perform better as a result - I’m convinced! Nathalie believes that lectures still provide a good medium for us to engage large groups but suggests that (a) less is more in terms of what we cover in the lecture and (b) we should try to include learning interventions that facilitate active learning.

Janelle Jones, Brendan Curran and I talked about specific teaching methods we use to engage larger cohorts. Janelle uses interactive activities; two examples are thought experiments and think-pair-share. The thought experiments are simple tasks that she asks all students to participate in during a lecture to demonstrate a concept – these are contextual, interactive and fun, I got a grey elephant from Denmark!? Brendan talked about partially flipped lectures to encourage students to think for themselves – a novel concept to some of them it seems but for the majority it is a highly valued experience. For some lectures, he posts provocative questions online for students to discuss in groups and each group has to respond to his question with a question. Brendan prepares responses to the students’ questions and he discusses these in detail during the lecture. This approach may be better suited for the eager beavers among us as Brendan explains it is time consuming in the first year though it gets much easier in subsequent years, it was also a hugely rewarding experience as a lecturer, the first time he tried this approach he said it was the most exciting lecture he had ever had! For me, it was clickers (a type of electronic voting system); this system has a high compatibility with TurningPoint and is very simple and easy to use. The interactive technology allows educators to ask a question during a lecture and view the responses in real time. There is a wealth of literature that supports the use of clickers; the key benefits include an improved lecture environment, improved quality of learning, participation by the whole cohort, feedback for the student and lecturer – the list goes on! I will be organizing a clicker training session soon, watch this space.

A few final top tips:

  1. Learn a few names, this adds a personal touch – it can actually lull the students into thinking you know all of their names, which of course you don’t (!), it can also be especially helpful when students are being disruptive.
  2. Moving about the lecture hall – this keeps the students more attentive and saves you going to the gym!
  3. Smile! A good one to end on.

This was another really constructive session. I find it so rewarding and productive to share experiences and ideas with colleagues in this way and I feel so motivated and energised afterwards! It seems I am not the only one - I have been told that the TIGER activities have been hugely valuable to all of those involved so far and I hope that this positive energy will continue to spread to all staff and postdocs as we plan more TIGER activities in the coming year.

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