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Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities

Edited by Jean MacGregor, James L. Cooper, Karl A. Smith, and Pamela Robinson
Jossey-Bass (http://www.josseybass.com)
128 pages
ISBN: 0-787-95337-7

Reviewed by

Bernie Goldstein

Sonoma State University

This is a small book, only ninety-seven pages, with a long title and multiple editors. It contains a wealth of ideas for making large classes seem smaller by increasing student involvement, feedback, and active learning, and by raising expectations. These ideas all come under the umbrella of teaching techniques and therefore can be helpful independent of the subject area being taught.

This book is designed to present a synthesis of interviews with forty-eight individuals across the United States who are "infusing their large classes with small group activities or are working explicitly to create student communities within large classes" (p. 1). The ideas in this book are based upon these interviews as well as on research findings cited in over a hundred references from the published literature on teaching and learning.

Strategies for Energizing Large Classes is part of an important series of publications entitled New Directions for Teaching and Learning. The series "informs readers about current and future directions in teaching and learning, illuminates the context that shapes these new directions, gives examples of the new pedagogy, and proposes ways in which these new directions can be incorporated into still other settings" (Page entitled from Series Editor).

At most colleges and universities, classes that fulfill general education requirements and introductory courses to the major often have enrollments numbering in the hundreds of students and are usually presented lecture-style. This style requires minimal student involvement and expects little from the students besides memorization of the facts. The new research on pedagogy cited in this book shows that more learning occurs when students are intimately involved with the subject matter, and large classes make it difficult, if not impossible, for students to become engaged in the learning process.

This is not to say that "lecturing" in large classes or small classes is devoid of any redeeming value. Lecturing has been part of the academic scene from the very beginning and will always play an important role in a faculty member's arsenal of pedagogic techniques.

My experience lecturing in large biology classes at San Francisco State University has taught me that effective lectures require considerable time preparing and rehearsing. A well-constructed lecture helps students organize and integrate the subject matter. Complex concepts can be developed while lecturing and a context and a history of the subject can be established. The instructor's love of teaching can stimulate student enthusiasm for the subject being taught. Fresh examples of various field techniques can be used to model critical thinking and solve biological problems.

On the other hand, as explained by the editors, lecturing is inappropriate when the educator is trying to help students develop higher-order thinking skills. The authors tell us that educational techniques other than lecturing are also needed to promote cognitive elaboration and to enhance social and emotional development.

The editors take great pains in the first chapter by using the findings of recent research in teaching and learning to explain the theoretical and experimental rationale for using small-group structure in large classes. This research shows that small-group instruction helps enhance critical thinking and develop higher-order thinking skills. The frequency of peer interaction is one of the best predictors of positive academic performance. When students are required to explain to others what they do when solving a problem, they later perform much better during tests of problem-solving skills. In a review of thirty-nine studies on teaching and learning, the authors found that small-group instruction contributed significantly to enhanced academic achievement.

Following Chapter 1, each chapter is progressively more complex in providing clear examples of small-group activities. The essence of each chapter in sequence is captured by the following abbreviated titles:

  • Chapter 2 -- Getting Started
  • Chapter 3 -- Going Deeper
  • Chapter 4 -- Restructuring
  • Chapter 5 -- Implementing
  • Chapter 6 -- Continued Expansion

Chapter 2 teaches us that great success can be achieved by using "informal, small group strategies in class -- that is, short in-class discussions of the turn-to-your-neighbor variety that begin or end the lecture or punctuate it at key points along the way" ( p. 17). One of the more popular examples of the "informal" approach is called "Think- Pair-Share." This technique has the instructor lecturing for a while and then presenting an example, question, topic, or test item for students to think about individually (i.e., "Think"). Each student then turns to a nearby partner to discuss the issue (i.e., "Pair"), and, if time permits, the pair shares a synopsis of their discussion with the entire class (i.e., "Share"). The advantage of this process is that every student in a large class can be thinking simultaneously about an issue or topic presented in the lecture. This process can be repeated several times during each presentation.

Other examples of informal small-group approaches are ConcepTests in which multiple-choice question are posed to the students every fifteen to twenty minutes and Quick -Thinks during which students are asked to paraphrase an idea just given in class, to correct an error, or to support a statement. Still other examples of informal methods include reviewing for an up-coming exam, debriefing immediately after an exam, and ending class with a small-group discussion. The One-Minute Manager comes to mind as another good example. At the end of the lecture, the instructor asks the students which one topic from the lecture they would like to have repeated. The instructor then presents a one-minute synopsis of the topic before the end of the lecture or at the beginning of the next lecture.

Chapter 3 describes several formal small-group learning experiences with exotic-sounding names such as "Jigsaw Strategies," "Structured Academic Controversy," "Problem-Based Learning," "Restructured Lecture-Recitation-Laboratory," and "Constructivist Pedagogy." All of these strategies are complex and require some faculty training in order to be executed successfully. For example, in Problem-Based Learning (PBL) problems are the organizing principle and stimulus for learning as well as the vehicle for the development of problem-solving skills. These problems are used to prepare students to think analytically and critically and to find and use learning resources that are appropriate to solving the problem. Students work in small groups to develop questions and discuss available information. An important characteristic of this approach is that students work in phases. They start out assessing what they already know, they identify what they need to know to solve the problem, and then they collect the necessary data to finish the project.

Another example of a formal small-group learning experience has been called "Constructivist Pedagogy" by various authors. I believe that constructivism is actually a theory about knowledge and learning rather than a pedagogy. It assumes that knowledge is temporary, socially and culturally mediated, and subjective. A constructivist professor feels that involving students in these more interesting and time-consuming activities improves critical thinking and enhances learning. Unfortunately, scientists and other scholars who subscribe to other learning theories--such as the concept that knowledge is objective and that truth exists outside of the subjective sensations of individuals--may not be willing to engage in the multiple approaches found in constructivist pedagogy.

From Chapter 4 we learn that student peer groups are powerful enhancers of student retention, graduation rates, and satisfaction. Students who collaborate with other students on meaningful academic activities say that those collaborations make a critical difference in their achievement. This chapter poses the question, "How can we best set up conditions for students to participate in meaningful collaborative learning activities when the very structures of undergraduate courses (not to mention the complexity of students' lives) do not foster sustained focus or opportunities to cultivate human relationships?" (p. 47). Also included in this chapter is a discussion of what the authors call "Learning Communities as Teaching Communities." The collaborative teaching that occurs in these kinds of programs takes the solitary and private acts of teaching into a new experience of shared responsibility. While this activity requires considerable energy, time, and money to develop, it can create a pocket community as well as a vision of deeper practice.

Chapter Five emphasizes implementation and addresses a number of concerns that emerge when small-group exercises are discussed. This chapter answers several typical questions raised by faculty regarding the efficacy of small group activities, such as "Aren't you sacrificing content coverage when doing group work rather than lecturing?" (p. 64) and "Do students learn as much in these small group settings?" (p. 65).

Faculty who use small-group activities in their classes consistently observe that students show more conceptual understanding, more complex critical thinking skills, more independence in lab settings, and better class attendance when this teaching technique is employed even when less course content is provided as a result.

The question, "Learning is a solo activity is it not?" is answered with a "no", because the evidence suggests otherwise (p. 67). On the contrary, small-group activities enhance learning at a greater rate.

About half the faculty interviewed agreed with the question that asked, "Don't you have to teach students certain information before they work in groups?" Some faculty suggested a balance between lecturing on foundational concepts and small group activity to apply the concepts (p. 66).

"What problems or points of resistance have you gotten from students?" is another concern raised in this chapter (p. 68). Faculty responded by pointing out that most student resistance is not to the small group activity per se, but instead stems from bad experiences of previous, poorly planned small-group activities. Resistance can also come about with the shift in responsibilities that occur when moving from lecturing to small-group activity. These shifts include but are not limited to the following examples:

  • from listener, observer to active problem solver
  • from private presence in the classroom with few risks to public person with many risks
  • from attendance dictated by personal decisions to attendance dictated by group expectations
  • from competition to cooperation with peers
    (p. 69)

Many other such questions are posed and answered in this chapter regarding the role of teaching assistants, evaluation, and logistics.

Chapter 6 describes the expansion of small-group processes in large lecture sessions. It also provides valuable resource and reference lists for small-group learning communities and activities. The chapter ends with the famous quote by Anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Strategies for Energizing Large Classes is a valuable asset for any professor's library. It provides a strong theoretical foundation and many examples of small-group activities. This type of work remains in the realm of research on teaching and pedagogy and is still a work in progress that takes many twists and turns. The kinks need to be worked out. In my experience, finding the right balance between lecture and small-group activity is always tricky. The appropriate questions and level of discussion must be carefully worked out. This type of teaching is a learning experience for faculty, and adequate rewards need to be available to provide an incentive for the long hours involved in preparing and choreographing the activities. The problems are not insurmountable. The one major drawback is the Constructivist philosophy that often underpins the small-group activity. In my view, it is possible to hold to other philosophies of knowledge and still be able to develop successful small-group activities in large lecture sections. It is not only possible-- it is happening!


Posted November 15, 2001

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2001 by Bernie Goldstein

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