How Do I Keep My Students Engaged in Large Courses?
We know that any interaction or experience we can create in the classroom—regardless of course size or modality—that prompts students to construct knowledge, make connections, and work together makes learning meaningful and engaging (Bonwell & Eison, 199; Bransford et al., 1999). Large enrollment classes pose an interesting challenge to engagement. We consider a class with more than 60 students a large course, but with any size, it’s important to think about how you can make your class “feel smaller.” If you use some of the strategies and examples below in your course, consider including them as part of students’ participation grade to increase their motivation to stay engaged.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
Check in with Your Students
Get to Know Your Students. You can cultivate a sense of belonging among your students, even in large courses. One way you can learn more about your students is asking them to complete an interest inventory at the beginning of the semester using the survey tool in Moodle or Blackboard. In the inventory, you can ask students questions about how they learn best, their prior knowledge on your course content, or what their individual goals are for the course (e.g., one thing they would like to learn or one skill they would like to develop by the end of the course). Think about how you can incorporate this information into your lectures or discussions. For example, you could put your students’ course goals in a word cloud or bar chart and share at the beginning of the semester, talk about how the course will help them achieve these goals, then return to the image mid-semester and at the end so students can see how invested you are in helping them achieve their goals.
Take the Temperature. Consider opening or closing the class by asking students to share how their week has been or how they’re feeling that day. In face-to-face classes, you can use in-class polling or have students give a thumbs up or thumbs down. If you’re holding online synchronous sessions, ask them to share their feelings in the chat. Alternatively, ask them to share a high and a low from the course readings or activities so you get a sense of where they are in the moment. If holding online asynchronous sessions, you can implement similar approaches in a discussion board forum or Zoom drop-in office hours.
Ask for Feedback. Check in with your students and ask how the course is going, if they feel engaged, how they feel about the workload, or what changes they might suggest to increase engagement. You can do this by creating your own anonymous survey that you ask students to complete. You can consult with the CTL on how to develop your own survey by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You could also request a Midterm Assessment Process (MAP) from the CTL.
Build in Interactions
Check What They Know. You can prompt students’ retrieval of course concepts by using iClicker questions in a face-to-face course or Zoom polling for online synchronous sessions. If you’re conducting class online asynchronously with recorded lectures or videos, consider making those lectures interactive and posing questions by using H5P in Moodle.
Group Discussions. Students are placed in small groups and given a specific topic, task, or question to work on, sharing different perspectives. Students can collaboratively write a summary, or an assigned group leader can share the summary in class or post the summary in a discussion forum on Moodle or Blackboard for the larger class, and the rest of the class and instructor respond throughout the week. Alternatively, you can use a Google notecatcher to capture students’ responses.
Collaborative Concept Mapping/Diagramming. In small groups, students collaboratively creative visuals that show the relationship between different concepts (concept map) or depict a structure or process (diagram). Students share a summary that justifies the connections or processes they perceive.
Bring in the Real World
Social Scavenger Hunt. Students find real-life examples of particular concepts covered in class (images, videos, articles) and share them in a Moodle or Blackboard discussion board or another platform. In their post, they must explain why the example reflects the concept.
Problem-Solving Activities. In small groups, students could be given a problem and list of principles used to solve problems in your field. Students then assess and defend what principle to apply in order to solve the problem. Alternatively, students can engage in a sequential group problem-solving exercise in a discussion board or collaborative google document, starting with an instructor-initiated problem in which students work together to solve by building and improving on previous posts.
Case Studies. In small groups, ask students to examine a real-life situation that reflects the concepts you’re teaching and its context in depth and produce a summary that determines the key factors that contributed to the outcome. Alternatively, you can ask students to write their own case studies and facilitate the discussion in their small groups. For online courses, case studies can be worked on synchronously in breakout rooms or asynchronously in discussion boards or Google Docs. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science has an extensive collection of case studies in various STEM disciplines, as well as business, economics, education, linguistics, journalism, nursing, and sociology.
You Can’t Spell Team without (Your) TA
Involve Graduate and Undergraduate TAs in Class Engagement. While graduate and undergraduate TAs provide tremendous assistance with grading, they can also creatively facilitate some of the small group engagement activities described above by joining small group discussions in face-to-face courses or breakout rooms in online synchronous courses. They can also monitor discussion boards or create FAQ documents in your Moodle or Blackboard course.
Create a TA Backchannel. If holding online synchronous classes, have your graduate or undergraduate TA monitor the chat function on Zoom (a type of backchannel) by answering any student questions or addressing their comments. By doing so, you’re encouraging interaction during your meetings without having to multitask. For online asynchronous courses, you can consider having a more informal communication channel (beyond discussion boards) that your TAs could monitor and help to foster dialogue and community.
Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at email@example.com
Berry, L., & Kowal, K. (2020). Part deux: Discussion on the rocks? Add a twist of fresh alternatives! 2020 OLC Innovate Conference.
Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Bruff, D. (2020). Active learning in hybrid and physically distanced classrooms [blog post]. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2020/06/active-learning-in-hybrid-and-socially-distanced-classrooms/
Li, Q., Thomas, J., & Johnson, H. (2020). Using the UofU course design cards to construct better learning narratives. 2020 OLC Innovate Conference.
McGill University Teaching and Learning Services. (n.d.). Problem-solving instructional strategies. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/tls/instructors/strategies/problem-solving
Build successful group work characterized by trust, psychological safety, clarity of expectations, and good communication.
Involving your TAs in class communication, behind-the-scenes work, and community building can support your students' learning.
A good start to your class can help build community, establish the depth and character of your learning environment, provide hands-on engagement, give students an opportunity to connect their experience to course topics, and set an inclusive foundation for learning.
Amanda Woerman, Assistant Professor in Biology provides students with a variety of ways to actively participate during class and through asynchronous engagement activities.