Would you like to supersize that? On active learning in large classroom settings

When I first arrived at UBC one of the first classes I taught was a 200 level comparative politics class. For whatever reason (I don’t take it personally) I only had 40 students in a class that is normally capped at 150. Hurrah! It was a new course for me and the average size of my cohort at my last gig was around 35 so my ‘new job and new course’ stress was somewhat reduced.

Having 40 students allowed me to do all sorts of active learning activities in my class: gallery walks, student presentations, small group work/breakout sessions, simulations, debates etc. It also meant that I was able to learn nearly all of my student’s names and engage with them one on one in lectures.  There were also many small assignments that allowed me to gage their performance nearly week by week; I could be responsive with written feedback and my time. For me, teaching this new class was a lot of work but a wonderful experience. Hurrah again!

Then. Reality hit. For another variety of reasons, the size of my 200 level class has pretty much tripled. Last year I had 100 students in this class. When I teach the class next term I will have 150. Comparative politics with Peterson has been supersized. I already learned from last year that active learning activities with 40 students do not translate well to 100 student cohorts—it is not just a matter of needing more handouts or more TAs. The class dynamic changes, the logistics change, the personal touch that makes active learning so valuable seems to diminish as you can’t physically get to the students in the middle of the room, and you simply don’t have time to engage meaningfully with everyone.

Passing a colleage today, fatigued by my current teaching and feeling a bit anxious about next term I joked (?) that I might just go back to ‘chalk and talk’. Well, of course I won’t but I can’t keep doing ‘active learning’ the way I am doing it. I’ve already had a chance this semester to think about how to make my active learning work for a bigger cohort. My Poli 100 (Intro to Politics) cohort has also doubled in size since last year. Here is what I have learned so far.

Make use of the natural leaders in your cohort and nurture new ones

For active learning to work in a large cohort, you need at least 80% of your students totally on board. Because you can’t be everywhere at all times making sure everyone is being ‘active’, peer pressure and accountability to each other has to be built into the activities themselves. Assign already and emerging strong students as leaders or discussants to help you keep everyone on track. Mix students up so these leaders (who often work together) are dispersed throughout the class.   At the same time, don’t rely on them too much. They might relish the challenge but they deserve a break– though they will learn so much by helping other students, they also should be allowed to work with their own peer groups regularly. Also be sure to not to have the same mentors all semester. Try to give as many students as possible this opportunity so they can see the benefits of leadership, grow in confidence and become more likely to ‘buy in’ to active learning in general

Save a tree, use the internet

Nearly all of my active learning pedagogies involve handouts. Often several. With 40 students I could come with a neat little ‘activity pack’ for each group of 5—a few short essentials readings, photocopies of some data, worksheets, paper/pens for post presentations. No biggie! Photocopying, compiling and then dragging 20+ activity packs to class just isn’t an option. Put anything that you would normally put in an ‘activity pack’ for students up online ahead of time and encourage students to bring their laptops to class so they have the materials for the activity already.   Handouts or activity sheets that need to be completed can likely be made as e-forms, that students can complete online and store in their own ‘my grades’ tab. This of course will require more prep time and last minute activity planning will have to go out the window… but that is likely a good thing in and of itself.

Insist on better spaces

Now, UBC has some wonderful learning spaces. But, the class-room-assigning gods were not smiling on me this year. I have tiered lectures theatres with terrible lighting (honestly, one of my rooms has the lighting of an old-school British Pub—think the ‘public toilets bar’ in Manchester on Oxford Rd for those of you who have been there. This room pretty much induces sleep from them moment I walk into it!). I digress. Neither of my rooms this semester have tables to make group easy. My students have to twist and contort to hear and see each other. These rooms are also built on the premise that ‘everything important happens at the front of the room’—meaning all of the wonderful knowledge be produced in every corner of my classroom through my students’ active learning is nearly impossible to share.

Space is a problem at all universities and there is often very little we can do about infrastructure. But we can be advocates for ourselves. Visit other classrooms, make lists of the ones you like and try and insist to the ‘powers that be’ that your pedagogy relies on better space. I haven’t always gotten the ideal room, but I have gotten improvements. Computer systems might do the scheduling, but there is generally a friendly human behind the screen who can help you find something better.

I’ve recently been awarded a small grant to conduct research on active learning and its effectiveness more generally, so if it is a topic that interests you—watch this space!

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