Interactive teaching and active involvement in large groups

I recently ran a workshop on tools and activities for engaging students in class, and I particularly enjoyed the discussion on ways of working with large groups, i.e. moving from the traditional ‘transmissional’ mode of delivery to a more interactive student-oriented one where the main challenge is the size of the group.

Active learning

Interactive teaching involve a lot of planning and preparation of relevant materials and resources. Very often, such sessions can be conceptualised as ‘sliced-up lectures’ as they consist of a balance of input from the lecturer with student activities. The actual proportions can be adjusted to individual cases, however priority is typically given to student-based activities over traditional lecturing.

Effectively, interactive lectures are about turning a traditional lecture into an extensive group (and sometimes individual) work, with lecturer facilitation. The lecturer moves from being a ‘sage on a stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’, and students move from being passive consumers of information to active generators of knowledge.

Interactive sessions tend to to be carefully planned and designed so that there is an evident sequence of events. There should also be a clear link between the content of the session and the rest of the module, including assessment, possibly other modules, as well as the students’ future professional practice. These links need to be clear both to the lecturer and students (where they sometimes need to be unambiguously spelled out).

group of people at table

It is also useful to be familiar with various group teaching techniques to be able to improvise if necessary. Group teaching activities can range from rapid one minute tasks to extended structured group projects or discussions.

As for the purpose of interactivity in teaching sessions, it is very often related either to checking understanding or applying knowledge. It helps to be clear about the purpose of an activity as it provides better focus for students.

Extended group activities like simulations, case studies, problem-solving or team-based learning are facilitated by flexible organisation of the learning spaces: round tables, display tools used throughout the space, whiteboards available to groups, ease of moving around, sockets for own devices etc. An interesting report on teaching spaces has been prepared by LSE. SCALE-UP is another way of conceptualising learning spaces to facilitate interactions and task-based group work.

So what can I do?

Here are some examples, ranging from rapid activities that do not require much planning to more extensive and structured ones.

  • Ask a question and ask students to discuss the answer in pairs or groups. Consider ways of reporting back: a Classroom Response tool, show of hands or cards/flags from the group, posters where responses are written and then presented etc. Also, consider the format of the question: what often works better than a standard open-ended question are either-or questions or the negative questioning technique where the lecturer provides an incorrect answer to a question and asks groups to discuss if the answer provided is right or wrong.
  • Mini-quizzes: check understanding though mini-quizzes – Classroom Response tools work great here!
  • Think – pair – share: a variation of the basic question asking. Students first consider the response individually, and then share/discuss in small groups.  Think – pair – share also works as write – pair – share.
  • Write quiz questions: ask students (individually or in groups) to write questions related to the content of the session. Collect the questions (e.g. through an Classroom Response tool) and use for a revision quiz next time or a similar activity. Consider adding an element of competition here: when all questions are displayed on the screen (via an Classroom Response tool), decide (e.g. through a basic show of hands) which are the most interesting/challenging.
  • Complete the handout competition: groups work on knowledge-recalling exercises on a handout (e.g. annotating diagrams, filling in the blanks etc.): set time limits – maybe also award prizes to the best/quickest group?
  • Minute paper: at the end of a class, students are asked to write the main points of the class so far. This gives the teacher an idea of the level of comprehension, any misconceptions etc.
  • Muddiest point: students write what points of the session so far are the most unclear to them. This may be followed by a group discussion.
  • Quiet reflection: break the session for nothing but reflecting on what has been discussed. Follow by asking for questions.
  • Discuss a demonstration: get students to predict the outcome of a demonstration you’re doing: you can first get them to submit individual responses through a Classroom Response tool and then discuss any controversies in small groups. This technique is often used in Peer Instruction method (see below): an example is available in this video.
  • Experience a demonstration: groups conduct an experiment or take/run a survey or work with data to confirm/disprove initial beliefs. Follow up by reflecting on the outcome: get students to consider their initial beliefs and explain where they went wrong.
  • Problem-solving/simulations: students are given short, ideally realistic scenarios giving them plausible motivation to solve the problem. Instructions should ideally start with “you”. Students may need to research the problem involved using their devices or referring to assigned reading. See this page for examples. This is an example of a simulation using a bespoke app.
  • Case studies: get groups to work on or analyse case studies and make relevant decisions, assess decisions made by others etc.  It’s crucial to consider ways for students to report their conclusions back to whole class. This article includes interesting ideas for case studies, including cliffhanger cases and incident type cases.
  • Role plays: students receive a scenario with a task to complete, roles each student plays and individual information relevant to decision making.
  • Backchannel communication: a technique familiar from conference presentations: remember the #discussion on Twitter that almost seemed more interesting than the actual talk? The technique involves the audience being engaged in the lecture, talk or similar via a media channel such as Twitter, Padlet, chat, discussion forum, or Classroom Response tool, with the presenter reviewing the content of the channel for questions and feedback. The audience is actively involved without interrupting the flow of the session. More information on the technique is available in the article ‘7 things you should know about backchannel communication‘.
  • Small group debates: Instead of a large group debate (often impractical for really large groups, scary for shy students), get students to debate a topic in small groups. Place them randomly in groups of three-four students on each team. Consider allocating specific roles to group members, like note-taker, presenter (to report back to whole class) etc. This article discusses small group debates in introductory microbiology module.
  • Peer instruction model: developed by Eric Mazur to help his students develop deeper understanding of concepts covered in the sessions. The sequence is as follows (source: Wikipedia):

1. Instructor poses question based on students’ responses to their pre-class reading.

2. Students reflect on the question and provide an individual answer (e.g. through a Classroom Response System).

3. Instructor reviews student responses.

4. Students discuss their thinking and answers with their peers.

5. Students then commit again to an individual answer.

6. The instructor again reviews responses and decides whether more explanation is needed before moving on to the next concept.

Group discussions help students receive immediate feedback, confront their understanding of a concept with that of others, and engage in deep learning processes. A rationale for and discussion of the method are presented in Eric Mazur’s excellent talk ‘Confessions of the converted lecturer‘, and an example is presented in this video clip. The Turn To Your Neighbor blog includes interesting articles on the application of the method.

  • Team-based learning: a structured way to motivate students to come prepared in class and work cooperatively in teams. In brief, students are divided into teams and stay in them throughout the duration of the module. A learning experience consists of pre-class knowledge acquisition (reading, watching videos etc.), readiness assurance check (first individual, followed by a group discussion), clarification of misconceptions, and application of knowledge in group tasks. Students are also given peer feedback by their group members on their contributions, thus motivating them to come prepared and participate.  A good overview of the technique is available on this Sway page.

At the beginning of a session…

It may be useful to check what students already know/understand about the topic – especially if they were assigned any reading or study. ARSs work well for this. You can also start with a 5 minute think-pair-share activity, like summarising the main points of the previous session or of the assigned reading.

Throughout the session…

Check understanding – again quizzes or think-pair-share activities work well here.

At the end of a session…

Finish with a one-minute writing activity: what are two questions that you still have about today’s topic. Clarify misunderstandings in the next session.

Manage the groups

While designing interactive sessions, consider how to allocate students to groups: will students choose the groups themselves or will they be allocated randomly? For random allocation consider handing out different coloured post-it notes. You can then ask for questions and/or answers from the ‘green team’ or the ‘pink team’. For some more structured activities (like team-based learning), groups are permanent, for others consider mixing the groups.

Where is technology in all this?

Teaching and learning should not be about the latest technological gimmicks. I was once told that as a teacher I should be able to teach even when all the technology suddenly breaks down and I end up with my students in a candle-lit room (health & safety aside). I believe we should always start with a clear purpose of an activity in mind: classroom technology should be seen as secondary to the actual activity and its pedagogical significance.

See more

A good discussion of strategies, techniques and recommended behaviours for teaching large groups is available on this page by Vanderbilt University. An excellent discussion of methods and techniques for active learning in large groups is available of the University of Sussex’s Technology-Enhanced Learning blog. For more examples of useful teaching techniques for large and small groups, such as syndicates, fishbowls and cross-overs, see this document by UCD Dublin. This page provides interesting ideas for triggers for interactive lecture segments.