The hardest course a freshman takes is likely to be a “survey class”—an introductory course that provides a broad overview of a particular subject. What makes it hard isn’t necessarily the subject matter, but that it tends to be a large class, with a lot of lecturing necessary to cover all the material.
Instructors often don’t like teaching these introductory courses either for similar reasons: Too much information to address, too many students to make individual connections—and instructors hate facing audiences with glazed eyes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. “We already know how to convey knowledge to a large body of people at one time,” says Joe Crivello, Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology, University of Connecticut.
He’s right. There are numerous teaching strategies, how-to guides, and teaching tools that leverage core principles of active learning to help improve connections between students and the material being taught. After all, the ultimate goal for any professor is to drive increased student motivation, engagement, and outcomes.
Active learning principles can be applied to introductory classes as well, to make large classes more amenable to learning and comprehension.
Among these core principles:
Prune the scope of the material to cover. Rather than the proverbial “mile wide and an inch deep,” think about the most important concepts and information that students need in order to build on their understanding in the future.
Encourage critical thinking. Classes are not just for conveying factual information, but for analyzing that information and helping students learn to draw conclusions as well. “Students want someone to parse the information and tell them what’s important, what’s germane to their future careers and requires their understanding,” Crivello says.
Keep students engaged. “Concentration on a speaker wanes after about 20 minutes—the length of a TED talk,” says Meaghan Altman, Continuing Lecturer in Psychology, University of California, Merced. “Every 20 minutes, I shift gears, shift focus, shift modalities.” She may ask a question to see if students understood what she said and help them practice their recall, or she might show a video or conduct a demonstration. All of these approaches are to make the information memorable.
Invest in regular feedback. Request and provide feedback often, rather than relying on midterm and final exams. “We can use technology to obviate the size of the class itself,” Crivello says, by posing questions throughout a class that students can answer electronically, and by embedding questions and quizzes in digital textbooks. These give professors insights into students’ comprehension of the material, and help them identify which students may be struggling.
Leverage active learning technology in the classroom. Consider introducing an integrated online learning platform that is designed to increase student engagement and comprehension before, during, and after class.
Crivello and Altman both chose Top Hat as the most suitable platform to create all-in-one, customizable digital courses that bring together interactive digital textbooks and readings, assignments, lecture slides, discussion questions, pre-built assessment tools, and instructor resources. Crivello co-authored the feature textbook being used in the Top Hat Intro Course for Anatomy & Physiology, because “interactive textbooks can include videos and 3D diagrams—they can exploit all the technologies now available,” Crivello says. “And it’s most effective if it’s integrated with the classroom itself.” Altman was the lead author for the textbook being used in the Top Hat Intro Course for Psychology.