Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#21 Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Improving Student Learning



Here are the highlights of a talk on teaching large classes given on April 24, 1998 at Stanford University. The speaker was Dr. Graham Gibbs of the Centre for Higher Education Practice at the Open University, a 200,000 student institution in the Unite d Kingdom.

Gibbs reviews research in the UK and in the US on the impact of large lecture classes on faculty and student behavior and on student learning. He then describes a number of little, or zero-cost methods, for improving stude nt learning in such classes.

NOTE: If you would like a hardcopy of the more detailed overheads of the talk (thumbnail, six to a page) just send me an e-mail with your address.


Rick Reis

------------ 622 words -----------

Teaching Large Classes: Strategies for Improving Student Learning

Dr. Graham Gibbs
Centre for Higher Education Practice
Open University, UK

Stanford University
(notes by R. Reis)

What research has found?

*Student ratings:
* Students dislike large classes
* They sometimes like very large classes, for dysfunctional reasons:- they can hide- tests are easier
* Students with unsophisticated conceptions of learning like teachers who have unsophisticated conceptions of teaching

* Student performance (USA):
* Performance on introductory large classes not worse, nor is it on subsequent courses (that build on the introductory courses) EXCEPT
*where assessment taps higher level outcomes
* where subsequent course had higher level goals
* This result has helped universities get away with very large introductory courses - if you keep testing with cheap/dirty methods, you wont' catch this.

*Classroom studies:
* Pattern of interaction changes as class size grows.- top 3-4 students who participate in a class of 8, still participate at same rate as size grows. - the remaining minimal interaction is just spread over the remainder of the class
* Quantity, quality of interaction changes
- % of teacher talking increases as size grows
- Students questions & answers get shorter
- Cognitive level of Q & A drops -- start to just ask/deliver facts not ideas

* UK Quantitative Studies
(Note on methods: external examiners review exams and set standards, a system not easily available in the U.S.)
* Correlation between enrollment & marks (grades) is as high as 0.5. Worst affected is social science, then humanities, then technical/engineering
* Decline of 1% avg. marks for ea. add'l 12 students!
* 50% more likely to gain C or F when enrollment over 70, than under 20
* Lots of studies across different institutions, given same systems
* Negative correlation between amt. of teaching & learning (The more teaching you do, the harder it is for students to prioritize what's important
* Long-term outcome research shows a dependence on amount of interaction with teachers
* Teaching and learning-centered descriptions of a course
*"teaching-centered" schedule at Oxford Brooks:

Lectures 24 hrs
Labs 36 hrs
Problem classes 12 hrs
* Lots of teacher misunderstanding of how much time students have available, or how much they actually spend outside of class
*"learning-centered description for same course
Budget for 120 hours of total student effort in the course
4 hrs lectures (teaching)
3 hrs workshops (teaching)
6 hrs seminars (teaching)
56 hrs fieldwork (learning)
10 hrs workshops to present fieldwork (teaching)
18 hrs preparing fieldwork notes (learning)
21 hrs preparing reports (learning)
6 hrs on resource paper
15 hrs on group report
120 hrs total, t:l ratio = 1: 4

*You can brief students on this & track it.
Understanding total student learning time is the key indicator of learning!

* What they did to improve situation at minimum cost
* Course requirement to complete 50 of 70 problem sets
* Peer assessment in six additional "lecture" sessions (Students' assessment was more personal & direct, but less correct)
* Grades on these problem sets didn't count!
* Lectures, problem sets, classes, exams unchanged
* Result - Average exam increased from 45% to 80%
Note: More examples given in the overheads.

* Why did it work?
* Peer group is more influential
* Doing the grading made them engage in the solution, not just the problem...they had to use the solution
* Experience with correcting problems gave them an inside perspective on how to look for problems in the solution
* More time spent on task (your peers will see it)

* Focus on learning activity, not teaching
* Generate learning hours up to your limit
* Use assessment to lever hours and focus
* Get students to do for themselves and for each other what you previously did for them
* Use social mechanisms for peer support and peer pressure
* See your course as an integrated whole