Incorporating Discussion in Large Classes

Often, faculty members wonder whether discussion and other active learning approaches are feasible and effective in large class settings. They may feel constrained by the seating configuration, worry about losing control of the class, or fear losing instructional time to transitions. At the same time, students who are accustomed to large, lecture-based classes may not expect to be engaged in discussion in that setting and may even be resistant to it. However, these obstacles are surmountable. Just as in smaller classes, thoughtfully planned discussion can support learning, enhance motivation, and contribute to a positive learning environment in very large classes with auditorium seating.

Use small group discussions to build community. Students in large, lecture-style classrooms may feel anonymous and disconnected from their peers and the instructor. Many appreciate the opportunity to get to know some of their peers, hear the perspectives of students different from them, and learn from one another through discussion in pairs or small groups.

Set an expectation of participation from the very first day of class and building in regular opportunities for some discussion in class will help students get comfortable with speaking in class. Regular opportunities for interaction will help them get to know their peers and gain confidence in their ability to share their ideas.

Connect discussion to learning objectives. Discussion in large classes, just as in the smallest classes, should clearly support learning objectives. Students should be able to see the relationship between discussion, other classroom activities, lectures, and assignments. That said, instructors also should expect that discussion sometimes will move into unexpected territory, as students connect their own experiences to the topic at hand. Building in time for processing and summarizing key points at the end of class can help instructors refocus attention on the most relevant points that emerged in discussion.

References and Additional Resources

Messineo, M., Gaither, G., Bott, J., & Ritchey, K. (2007). Inexperienced versus experienced students' expectations for active learning in large classes. College Teaching, 55(3), 125-133.

Considerations for Large Classes (UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning)

Class Size Matters: How to Teach Large Classes (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Discussion in Large Classes (University of Illinois Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning)

Teaching Large Classes (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching) 

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