17 December 2008

Effective large group instruction at university

By Dr Yong Fung Lan

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Large group instruction is one of the commonest methods used at college or university, as it lowers lecturer costs, capitalizes lecturer time and talent, and optimizes the use of professional quality resources.  However, its effectiveness is influenced by such factors as classroom control and students’ psychosocial attributes. Classroom discipline, including tardiness, noise level, and other disruptive behaviors is more challenging in a large class than a smaller one.
Further, students with poor study and information literacy skills also tend to increase with class size. Fortunately, problems associated with large group instruction can be ameliorated by practicing better classroom management and modifying students’ behavior and attitudes.

Since different learning styles usually exist in large groups, instructional variety through the use of different media allows lecturers to accommodate students’ learning preferences, keeping them engaged.  Some lecturers combine short lectures with video clips, slides, overhead sheets, or role play to make their lessons more interactive and student-centered.  Others combine jigsaw reading and group discussion, encouraging team members to contribute or share ideas.  Still others encourage students to pose course-related questions on Blackboard (BB) or on the board right before class.

Besides instructional variety, lecturer accessibility greatly contributes to the effective management of large tertiary classes.  Some lecturers allow students to approach them individually five minutes before class begins or remain available after class to address students’ concerns.  Some have a course homepage or use BB to reinforce their lecture content, including notes, summaries, sample tests/exams, and even model answers.  Finally, lecturers teaching large groups are usually “swamped” once their consultation hours are announced in class or posted on BB.

To establish a small-class atmosphere in a large class, some lecturers try to make students feel close-knit by using various bonding techniques.  For example, they walk around the classroom while explaining, move toward students who ask questions, or distribute handouts.  Some lecturers also use BB as an instructional tool, posting practice exercises or mock tests for students to do in groups. As facilitators, they also walk around the lab to provide verbal feedback or address students’ queries.  

Appropriate self-presentation is essential to make a large class more personalized.  On the first day of class, for instance, many lecturers discuss the course outline, set realistic expectations and timelines, and highlight effective study and information literacy skills.  Some lecturers even reveal their share of problems while grasping difficult new concepts in an attempt to break the ice and build rapport.

Like proper self-presentation, effective interpersonal communication (through calling upon students and emphasizing their life experiences) makes a large class more close-knit.  To remember students’ names, lecturers can organize a seating chart, sketch students’ faces on the attendance list, distribute name cards, or ask students to help distribute handouts.  To incorporate students’ life experiences into the class, they can administer a short questionnaire to gather information on their academic backgrounds, interests, and goals. 

As students with special needs tend to be more prevalent in a large class, lecturers need to adopt effective strategies to help them achieve their full potential.  For instance, they can provide formative evaluation by monitoring students’ attendance and course performance throughout the semester. 

Additionally, conferences and review sessions should be periodically arranged to address problems and issues that require special attention.  An individual education plan (IEP) that incorporates extra tuition and revisionary practices further ensures that students at the bottleneck perform up to par. 

Like accommodating students’ special needs, providing individualized feedback in a large class, although difficult, enhances learning.  Lecturers can provide periodical reviews by commenting on individual reports, group projects, or tests.  Besides regular comments, forums can be organized to allow more capable students to present their multifaceted arguments in class or on BB that not only solicit feedback, but also foster student journalism.  

A large group of tertiary students offers greater diversity in terms of academic ability, cultural values, and problem solving styles.  Class pluralism can be leveraged for lively discussions and other collaborative learning activities that generate enthusiasm and community spirit.  Multiculturalism fosters positive attitudes toward the course, peers, and lecturer, often resulting in greater academic gains.  Further, a large class, with a greater concentration of international students and high achievers, is highly inspirational and inspiring.  For instance, while international students offer multifarious perspectives in terms of problem solving, high achievers are often elected as project leaders and peer mentors.

Besides wide ranging perspectives, a large group creates a crowd atmosphere that can be garnered for teaching and learning.  Humans tend to become more enthusiastic and energized amongst a “madding” crowd; they are more motivated to think and act in unison.  Hence, even the most introverted can be influenced by an excited crowd.  By the same token, a shy student tends to become more sociable in the company of eager peers.

Lecturers can take advantage of the contagious atmosphere by implementing and facilitating learning activities that augment intellectual exchange, peer interaction and feedback, opinion sharing, or open-ended responses.  Group enthusiasm, fueled by diversity, can also be channeled into newsgroups and other journalistic ventures that allow a multicultural community to generate, convert, and diffuse innovative ideas.

In summary, effective large group instruction of tertiary students can be achieved by applying various classroom management and behavior modification techniques.  Lecturers “stuck” with large classes should emphasize instructional variety, accessibility, and small-class atmosphere.  They should also consider appropriate self-presentation and effective interpersonal communication.  Devoting greater attention to students with special needs, tapping classroom diversity, and capitalizing on the crowd mentality are also effective in managing large groups characterized by heterogeneous learning styles, ability levels, and cultural perspectives.

Dr Yong Fung Lan is a lecturer with the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at fyong@swinburne.edu.my.