By Guest Writer: Dr. Stanley Guffey
Large and mega-large undergraduate classes are standards of the large research university educational landscape.
In the United States, large university classes were initially created to accommodate the influx of students afforded college through the GI bill, and later to accommodate the general expansion of the higher education franchise. However, prior to this change, popular and gifted lecturers in European and North American universities often attracted large numbers of students to their courses.
Two roots reflect the rationale, if not the necessity, of large classes: faculty time, and the utility of the lecture. Like it or not, the limits on faculty time is an unavoidable and persistent reality of the large research university, necessitating these large enrollment classes. On the other hand, research over the past 30 years negates the utility of the simple stand-up lecture as an effective means of instruction. The first justification for large enrollment classes may be effectively unavoidable; the second is suspect at best, and cause for reconsideration.
How large is large? A poll of higher education faculty will elicit a range of responses “anything over 20 or 25”, “an enrollment over about 35”, “more than 50”, or “about a hundred or larger”. Other faculty members take a process management perspective, defining “large” as any enrollment where essay exams and written assignments are prohibitive, or where group work or in-class discussion is difficult to manage.
Dr. Jackie Jacobs in the Haslam College of Business Department of Management—one of the TennTLC creative teaching grantees—avoids thinking of numbers in her discussion of the large class problem, instead focusing on a researched aspect of the instructor’s role: immediacy. Following this line of inquiry, she defines immediacy as “a set of behaviors which creates a perception of physical or psychological closeness between communicators” (Jacobs, 2013; cf. Mehrabian, 1971). The significance of this perspective is that instructors, through their immediacy or lack thereof, “play a critical role in the development of talent and in student’s attitudes toward education.”
For Jacobs, what defines large is a function of the attention an instructor gives to immediacy, and the tools she employs to try to achieve it.
From this perspective, a class of 25 where the instructor’s sole contact with students is as the deliverer of content and evaluator of exams is lacking in essential immediacy, and therefore, could be defined as large even with the smaller number, due to its lack of immediacy. So, a class of 150 where the instructor is using tools and teaching techniques to achieve an element of immediacy is more effective than the hypothetical lecture to 25 students, and in the sense of immediacy, not so large after all. Fortunately, the former is an abstraction that does not occur at UT. And the latter situation is achievable through purposeful course design.
Lecture (learning through listening) does not facilitate deep learning. Lecture engages the listener and can motivate listeners to learn. I stand by both statements, but will need to qualify the latter. Passivity is a frequent but not an absolute consequence of the lecture. For the disciplined mind, equipped with the necessary prior knowledge and understanding, and focused on the subject at hand, lectures can be effective learning vehicles in which the mind of the listener is actively involved. By contrast, novice learners lacking both the disciplinary background and the habits of mind of the expert learner, quickly become passive listeners, hearers at best, but not active participants in the construction of new knowledge for themselves.
Most of our undergraduate students are likely both disciplinary novices and novice learners. At best, many or most undergraduate students subjected to the 50 or 75 minute lecture will be able to answer some low-order factual recall questions but will have difficulty in applying knowledge or thinking critically about complex questions in the discipline. Unfortunately, the stand-up lecture is often the perceived default mode for teaching large lecture classes – that’s what we call them, lectures. But it needn’t be so. Active learning tools and techniques, such as clickers (response systems), small group discussion, and group problem solving can be effectively employed in the large class, to the learning benefit of our students. Highly effective and well-researched techniques include the Mazur method, which combines clicker questions with peer-to-peer learning are one example. Other effective techniques include making your lectures ‘active’ lectures, by providing students with the means to take better notes (using a lecture guide) and short pauses for written reflection. A list of excellent ideas are summarized in an edition of Tomorrow’s Professor.
Teacher immediacy and active engagement are keys to “shrinking” the large class and effectively facilitating student learning. To achieve immediacy, find ways for frequent contact with students. Greet students before and after class, use email and/or social media for regular communication. Targeted communications, such as those addressing exam performances, encourage students by demonstrating that you are paying attention and want them to do well. It may take a little time, but as Jackie Jacob’s research in her large classes indicates, the rewards are improved attitudes of students, individual accountability towards learning, and increased learning. Active learning tools and techniques can be used effectively with sufficient planning and design contrary to some perceptions. But those are topics for another day. Check out TennTLC web space for tips and ideas about using active learning in your large enrollment classes. And talk with colleagues, share ideas. Like you, they are effectively facilitating student learning in their large classes, and always searching for new ideas and approaches for doing it better.
Jacobs, J. 2013. Creative Teaching Grant Proposal: Lost in the Crowd? An examination of the effects of teacher immediacy via Electronic Communication on Student Affective and Cognitive Learning in Large Lecture Classes. Proposal submitted to the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.