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5 Strategies for Increasing Active Learning in Large Lectures

5 Strategies for Increasing Active Learning in Large Lectures

Large lecture courses are an efficient way to teach introductory concepts, but they are also notorious for promoting anonymity. It’s easy for students already struggling to keep up with course material to slip through the cracks when they’re just one of 300 people in the room. Plus, it’s naturally more challenging to capture and hold everyone’s attention in a lecture than it is in a smaller discussion.

They key for instructors is to prioritize active learning rather than passive observance. 

Start with Roll Call

One way to combat the feeling of anonymity is to require students to sign in sometime before the end of class. Yes, you’ll hear some grumbles at first. But this simple measure boosts student accountability. Some professors set out or pass around physical sign-in sheets. Others utilize an electronic roll call system in which students text in a code to add their name to the list. And, of course, they only get the code if they come to class.

This is not to say that every lecture needs to be mandatory. Some flexibility is usually necessary for large lecture classes. But the first step toward promoting active learning is making students feel like more than just a number. 

Develop a Technology Usage Policy

The Journal of Media Education published a 2016 study about digital distractions. Student respondents estimated they spend 20 percent of their classroom time using digital devices for uses other than learning. Examples include “mostly text messaging but also emailing, web surfing, checking social media and even playing games.”

It’s easier to get away with misuse of technology in a large lecture hall. But this level of distraction hurts not only the student engaging in it, but also the people around them. It’s hard to pay attention to a lecture when the person in front of you is scrolling through Facebook photos or the like. So, it follows that savvy lecturers will try to preemptively minimize these activities.

Some lecturers require students to take notes by hand rather than with a laptop. Others institute a no-phones policy, except as part of an audience response system. Include your chosen policy in your syllabus and refresh students on its terms periodically.

Check for Comprehension

Imagine you’re a freshman sitting in a 200-person lecture. You’re not sure you grasped the previous concept but know it’s the foundation for future lessons. What do you do? Probably not raise your hand and confess your confusion to the entire class. You could visit your professor during office hours, but that means you’ll miss out on the value of the lessons in between.

Students are rarely alone in experiencing this. But it can be difficult as a professor to gauge exactly which concepts students are and are not absorbing. Embedding live polling into an interactive PowerPoint allows you to check for comprehension using multiple-choice polls. The results update in real time, so it’s immediately apparent which topics need revisiting. These polls also serve as a jumping off point for class and small-group discussions.

Turn to Your Neighbors

Large lectures often feel impersonal to students, especially when they follow a one-to-many communication model. Asking students to break into small groups can be tedious in a lecture hall filled with rows of fixed seats. Directing students to turn to a neighbor is much simpler. Provide relevant prompts to jump-start these paired conversation, including:

  • Each student’s name plus one personal fact
  • Their favorite lesson or concept thus far
  • One question or observation they have about the course material
  • One study tip or habit

Create an Electronic Forum

Why limit learning to the four walls of your lecture hall? Establishing an electronic forum for your class allows students to ask questions, form study groups and access additional content at their own pace. You may even ask students to contribute a certain number of discussion questions and answers as part of your course syllabus.

It’s especially crucial to promote active learning in large lectures, so consider implementing these strategies soon.

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