Teaching large classes – implications from a Teaching Development Project 大班教學 – 從一個教學研究項目得到的啟示

This article shares the major findings from a teaching development project on teaching large classes and discusses the implications for practice. 本文旨在分享一個關於大班教學的研究項目的主要發現,並對討論列舉了適用於大班的教學方法。

Background of the project (項目背景)

This project (Sept 2017-August 2018) was funded by Teaching Development Grant (TDG), The University of Hong Kong. It involved qualitative (interviews and classroom observations) and quantitative studies (in-class surveys after individual learning tasks) in four foundation courses in a STEM discipline.

This project targeted a teaching format which is synonymous with higher education (i.e., large classes in lecture halls). A joint effort was made by content experts, pedagogical experts, and measurement experts to address lecture engagement within three compulsory and fundamental courses for the first year students in the Faculty of Science. The project involved 36 classroom observations, interviews with 26 students and multiple rounds of surveys on different classroom activities. The project identified typical patterns of students’ behaviours in different teaching and learning scenarios in large lectures. Implications were drawn based on the evidence collected on whether or not certain teaching and learning activities contributed to students’ interests in the topic, course and domain.

Major findings and implications for practice(主要發現和對教學的啟示)

1.      A combination of mini-lectures and other activities (小型講座與其他活動的結合)

The instructional context: It was observed that students seemed to be more active when they were asked to work on a question /problem/ worksheet when compared with lecturing time. Those who were sleeping were more likely to sit up due to the shift of activity in class and attempt to answer question. Student were more likely to make notes while they listened to teacher’s explanation. It was observed sometimes students continued to discuss about or work on the problem they worked on when teacher moved on to the next topic or activity. In some cases, such students can spend very significant time on it longer after the activity ended. It was also observed at micro level some students spent significant time figuring out what they were expected to do. They didn’t manage to complete the task.

Implication: It might be a good idea to insert some non-lecture activities alongside the mini lectures to maintain students’ attention. Teacher can try the activities which give students opportunity to check their own understanding, apply what they learn, or share their understanding with others. At the same time, make sure you are not using the activities for activities’ sake. Think practically how much time students might need for the activity so that they can finish in time and will not be “distracted” and miss the following mini-lectures. In addition, make sure you provide clear instruction. Comparing with a small class, it is much hard for the teacher to keep track of who is struggling to understand your instructions.

2.      Developing sustainable interests (發展學生持久的興趣)

The instructional context: It was observed that, when a video was played in the class, most students paid attention to the video, even those who were originally doing irrelevant things would also look up and watch the video. However, when the video finished, most students who were doing irrelevant things would go back to what they were doing.

Implication: Carefully chosen videos are often informative and engaging. They provide some breaks from lectures for students and seemed to help renewed students’ attention. Some students put down irrelevant things and started to pay attention. However, it looked like video didn’t result in sustainable interests in the lecture topic. So it is important not to use videos as an isolated activity. Try to build the connection between the video and other parts of the lecture, making use of students’ general interests in the videos and creating activities around the videos so that students can continue to be engaged after watching the video. For example, ask a question or questions before playing the video and have follow-up discussion. This way students are mentally engaged when watching the videos and the videos will be more than just some fun.

3.      Structuring the learning activity carefully (仔細構建學習活動)

The instructional context: It was observed that students generally had higher rate of engagement when teachers asked a question, gave students a problem to solve, a model to build, or something similar. It was also observed some students didn’t have a clear sense of the time allowed for the activity. So some students spent a lot of time figuring out what they were expected to do. In some case, students were not able to complete the task in time. Some students were so enthusiastic about the task that they continued to work on it when teacher moved on. In this case, such students missed a lot of important information teacher talked about after the activity.


  1. To make use of such hot moment (where students demonstrated interests) to engage students.
  2. To implement a complete assessment-feedback loop for more flexible instructional design onsite that really cater students’ learning needs.
  3. To provide debriefing after the activity to consolidate students’ understanding.
  4. To provide clear instruction to help students manage their time in order to get the most of the activity.

The instructional option: Two loops

Loop 1— Introducing the activity-activity-debriefing of the activity:

  1. Provide more detailed procedure instructions at the beginning so help students get down to the task more easily. For example, based on one of the observations that some students couldn’t manage time well in the task, it can be very helpful if instructions about timeline could be given to students more explicitly at the beginning of the task.
  2. Provide a debriefing to consolidate the learning from the activity. Pick out the key concepts or ideas involved in the task. Emphasize or explain further, especially the ones students seemed to have problem with when teacher circulated in the classroom during the activity.

Loop 2— Formative assessment-feedback loop (This loop is for both the teacher and students.)

  1. Teacher can provide some questions at the beginning of the activity and use these questions to guide the debriefing (as mentioned above) later. There are two options for the kind of the questions a teacher could ask. First, a teacher could ask questions that directly check students’ understanding of the concepts relating to the task. Second, a teacher could ask questions to check the typical challenges or difficulties students encounter in the task. Both will help the teacher to adjust the debriefing after the activity.
  2. There are many tools that could facilitate the assessment-feedback loop (e.g. Moodle, Mentimeter, and Padlet) —or simple questions provide via PowerPoint and collecting feedback from students by show of hands. If you choose to ask the second type of question, invite students to post the answers anytime during the task. You can choose to respond immediately if it is an urgent question. Or you can read through while students are working on the task. By the time students finish the task, you already have a selected list of things you want to debrief students.

4.      Knowledge check/collecting feedback from students in class (课上學习成果检查/收集反饋)

The instructional context: It was observed in class that some students did have questions they wanted to raise after the teacher asked “do you have any question?” The discussion went on for a while afterward and other students also started to make notes while listening to this discussion. In the focus group discussions, students also mentioned the importance of knowledge checking for them.

Rationale: What was observed and heard from the students demonstrated the importance of taking a break from information introduction and collecting feedback from students. This will help make your course cater to students’ learning needs better. The knowledge check is one way to open up the conversation with students. I put it as “collecting feedback from students in class” because I think it again falls into the “assessment-feedback loop” concept mentioned above.

The instructional option:

“Do you have any question?” can work. But sometimes it may not work. In case it won’t work. A few more options are provided here.

  1. Use some e-learning tools to check whether students understand or not. If you brief students at the beginning of the course that this tool will be used as a major way to communicate in the large class and keep using it, students will get used to it and it won’t take too much time using it in class. This instructional method is normally called Audience Response System.
  2. To check the students’ understanding, again you have two options mentioned above in “a” in “Loop 2— Formative assessment-feedback loop”. Sometime, if students are really struggling with the concepts, they may not be able to ask you questions. In that case, the first option might be better as it check directly students’ understanding of the concepts.
  3. One more benefit of doing so is you will develop a bank of common mistakes or misconceptions or common challenges students will encounter in the learning of specific concepts. This bank will support you develop an adaptive learning system for the students. We can talk about it if individual teachers are interested in this concept.
  4. Use Peer Instruction to engage students with each other.

5.      Engaging students with low and high levels of knowledge (吸引不同層次的學生)

The instructional context: As we observed at micro level, we noticed a very small number of students who watched their mobile phones or doing other things almost throughout the lecture. At the beginning, they behaviours were interpreted as not having enough interests in the course. However, later in the observation, we found some of them might well be “expert” students as students around them actually referred to them for advice when the teachers raised questions/gave problems to solve. These students then stopped what they were doing and explained to the group member how the problems might be approached. It was also observed, at times, they would stop what they were doing, listen to the teachers, or checked the slides printed or on their computers. It seemed they had a clear plan of which part they would like to listen and only listen to those parts.

At the same time, the results from the surveys indicated the critical roles of prior interest and knowledge for students’ interest in classroom activities. Lectures seemed to support higher interest lower knowledge students at one end and writing activities might support lower interest higher ability students at the other end. Peer learning activities were somewhere in between.

Rationale: The activity obviously provided an opportunity to engage students with each other. Even the “expert” students (if our assumption was right) participated. In the instructional design, it might be good to put forward challenges of different levels to students in the activities so that students of different levels can find something to motivate them.

The instructional option:

Relating to the Audience Response System, it might be helpful to include questions of different difficult levels so that even “expert” students might find something challenging and become more interested in listening to the lecture. Explicitly tell students at the end of activity, these questions are testing different levels of understanding. Or label the levels of difficult for each question. So students themselves will be able to know their levels of understanding as well.

Another options is to include different types of activities, the ones that requires collaboration among students (for peer learning), the ones that need them to communicate orally, or the ones where they have to write. Writing is often more challenging then speaking as it is more formal. Students need to express their ideas more precisely.

6.  Training students for the intended effect of the activities培养學生参与活动所需的技巧以達到預期的活動效果

It was observed that many activities clearly attracted a lot of attentions from students at the beginning. The more structured activities led to better student engagement (e.g. increasing complexity of the procedures step by step, involving multiple types of student interactions (from “working independently” to “checking with each other the correctness of the answers”)). Having follow-up steps after a question seemed to invited more commitment from students to work on the questions than asking a question with no follow-ups.

However, more structured activities can post more demands on students because it may have more complicated procedures.  Teachers can consider using such a simpler version of the structured activity at the beginning of the course to “train” the students how they are expected to “discuss/work in group”. The instructions can be more specific, like how many minutes they have and how exactly they are supposed to discuss. For example, tell them they can talk to their neighbors or find out someone in the class who has a different answer and try to persuade each other. After this step, the teacher can gradually increase the complexity of the task. By setting up some examples at the early stage and expectations, it might be easier for students to pick up “how to work/discuss together” for the rest of the course. It is more likely to achieve the intended effect of your activity.

7.     What students suggested: A checklist of students’ perceived good practices for teaching large classes based on student interviews来自學生的建議:大班教學的最佳做法清單(據學生訪談整理)

1)      Organisation of visual materials (視覺材料的設計)

  1. Providing the outline of topic and learning outcomes
  2. Highlighting key points
  3. Simpler language and examples for definitions
  4. Summary at the end of the class (key points and area for potential self-study)
  5. Less text-heavy slides. Breaking down one slide into several explaining one point at a time (avoid cognitive overload). Indicating the relevant materials available (textbook, reading materials), especially for the parts that are complicated and student may not be able to grasp in short time in class.

2)      Instruction (教學)

  1. Discussing with students the aims and rationale for including an exercise
  2. Providing an outline of the lecture at the beginning as some students were spending quite a bit of time figuring out the organization of the contents rather than using the time to study the actual materials. If an outline is provided, they may have more time to focus on the important stuff.
  3. Providing a clear summary statement for each topic
  4. Checking whether students have good understanding of each part before moving on.
  5. Allowing more time for questions and ensuring that students feel encouraged to ask questions.
  6. Walking around when students are attempting question
  7. Repetition and emphasis of important points
  8. Giving more relatable examples especially for abstract topics
  9. Asking more questions in general: phrasing more of your instruction as questions which students do not always need to answer; throwing out some mid-level questions that a wider variety of students might be able to answer; using a strategy to get participation from students beyond the first few rows; giving students some short time (e.g. 1 minute) to converse with a neighbour before answering your question (but express clearly what they are expected to do after that short discussion)
  10. Adding a wider variety of activities: paired, individual, mid-level challenge, and high challenge.
  11. Taking time to discuss with students your expectation. Bridging the gap between the intentions of teacher and expectation of students, especially for the first-year students.

3)      Assessment (評估)

  1. Making sure the levels of difficulty are consistent between the examples used in the class examples and those used in the tests
  2. Providing regular formative assessment with quick feedback so that students know their progress
  3. Briefing students about the type/level of the summative assessment they will face later.

8.      Other alternative instructional options based on the classroom observations (其他可供選擇的教學方法(基於課堂觀察整理))

  • Starting the lecture with a challenging question
  • Including activities where students can apply what they learn in their own majors (e.g. applications of the theorems to business, engineering, biology, etc.). Or encouraging students to find out where and how certain concepts could be applied in their own context.
  • Engaging students to discuss connections between concepts.
  • Apart from usual practice for Q&A, considering letting students compare their answers with each other, receive peer feedback and polish their answers before answering your question.

Why do students sit at the back of the classroom: based on the interviews with students who sat at the back (為什麼坐在教室後面?根據對坐在教室後面的同學的訪談整理)

  1. Why do you sit at the back of the classroom?” “為什麼要坐在教室後面?”
  • Majority of the students thought that they were “freer” when sitting at the back, where they can work on their own stuff and avoid answering questions raised by the Professor. Students had a general idea that teachers tended to ask students sitting in the front to answer questions.
  • Two students believed that there was not much difference sitting in the front or the back of the classroom. They solely chose to sit at the back either because they were late or they wanted to sit with their friends.
  1. What did you do at the back of the classroom?” “坐在教室後面時你通常在做什麼?”
  • (Majority) Working on other coursework that was irrelevant to the course
  • (Majority) Going on social media
  • Talking
  • Sleeping
  1. “Why did you still choose to stay in the classroom when you were actually working on your own?”既然你實際上是在做自己的事,為什麼還選擇留在教室裡
  • Most students believed that they could multi-task where they work and listen to the teacher at the same time. Most of them believed that they can only get at most 50-60% of the content given by the teacher of the class. They said they would focus if they found anything important or interesting.
  • When asked if they thought the above content (the content from the lecture) got was enough for them to handle the course, most of them said no. A few students mentioned that that was why they chose to sit at the back of the classroom. They believed they could handle on their own to a certain extent. 
  1. “How did you feel about courses that you chose to sit at the back?” “對於你選擇坐在後面的這個課程,你總體感覺如何?”
  • Most of the students found those classes boring to them, as they found there not much difference from reading lecture notes on their own.
  • Some students reflected and confessed that they did not take those courses as seriously as other courses that they chose to sit at the front.
  • One student thought that the class time was too long for him to focus all along though he found the content of the class interesting.

Typical student behaviours observed in large classes (大班課堂中觀察到的學生典型行為)

  • Most behavioural patterns observed from students were consistent cross different courses and lectures.
  • The most frequently observed behaviours in large lectures were listening to the teacher, making notes, using electronic device for irrelevant things and chatting (from the more to the less frequent).
  • Most students brought to classroom the lecture slides lecturers provided. Most of them used computer to read the slides. Fewer used the printed copies. Even fewer used iPad.
  • Majority of the students made notes by hand in Math course. Fewer students took notes in Biology and Biochem courses and most of the cases students used computer to take notes.
  • In most cases when students used mobile phones, they used them for social network. Many students used two devices (mobile phone, computer, or iPad) at the same time.
  • When students were mentally occupied with activities (e.g. solving a equation, build a model, card game, worksheet, and so on), almost nobody checked mobile except a few cases where students used mobile to search for information for the activity.
  • It was repeatedly observed at micro level observations that some students were quite selective in terms of when to listen and when to ignore. When they chose to ignore, their observed behaviours varied from reading journal papers, doing some exercises, or browsing on internet. When it came to a certain part of the lecture, they would stop what they were doing and quickly go to the relevant slides and listen to the teacher.

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