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Pick an activity or skill, like learning to garden, baking, cooking, or learning to program. While one could read books, explore online forums for tips or even take courses, these skills and others like them are more fully grasped when they are engaged in actively. Learning in the classroom can be treated in the same manner and pedagogical techniques like flipped classrooms and active learning exercises have proven to be extremely powerful ways of engaging students, increasing understanding, and raising test scores. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published in June 2014 by Freeman et al. showed that classes where active learning was used enjoyed higher examination scores and lower drop rates compared to traditional all lecture courses.

Various active learning techniques have been covered broadly at a number of Kaneb workshops and in previous blog posts (see Keeping Students Engaged, Effective Lecture Strategies, Active Learning). However these offerings tended to be focused on smaller classroom sizes which are a different environment when compared to a large introductory science course. This offering will instead be focusing on which techniques can work in these larger classes and is presented as a companion to Mark Caprio’s recent Kaneb workshop (Improving Teaching and Learning One Step at a Time).

As a refresher, let’s look at two common active learning techniques and what they entail. We will then look at what variations might make them more effective for a larger STEM class.



  • This activity often begins by posing a non-trivial question (calculation) or offering a discussion topic to the class. First give students 1-2 minutes to work or think on the question individually. Then have students pair (or group) up and continue solving and refining their answer. Finally, after another minute or two, have the students share their answers with the class.

Polling/Clicker Questions:

  • The general idea of this activity is to get rapid feedback from potentially the entire class. A problem (often multiple choice) is posed or displayed on the board. The students then have a short time to solve the problem and submit their answers. This can be done with minimal technology by using colored/labeled index cards. However, the near ubiquity of cellphones does allow you to make use of websites like polleverywhere.com and tophat.com to quickly get useful comparisons and statistics.


TPST (Think-Pair-Share-Turn in):

  • One of the difficulties of TPS in a large class is ensuring that the majority of students are participating. In a small class, it would be possible for everyone to share, and even in a medium sized class a simple random selection approach would keep the students on their toes and actively engaged. However, the suggested variation for the larger classes is that the ‘think-pair’ activity should result in a short assignment that would be collected at the end of the class and graded, either for simple completeness or accuracy. Depending on grading support and time constraints, this approach could involve randomness on whether the assignment is collected or not. One specific example that could work well for this activity would be a “one-minute paper”, where the prompt asks students to express their understanding of a recently covered concept. This is an exceptionally useful activity when introducing a difficult idea since it can act as a measure of comprehension.


  • This technique is one of the easiest to scale up to a large classroom since the time for the activity does not scale with number of students. The polling could even be used as a conclusion with the thinking and pairing already mentioned where the time-consuming sharing is replaced by the polling. Depending on the specific implementation answers can be kept anonymous, or they can be linked with students so that grades can be assigned. The Kaneb Center offers workshops that go in more depth with how to use these and other technologies (Tech Tools for Teaching, Teaching Well Using Technology).


Ensuring that active learning techniques are helpful in larger classes is a difficult proposition and one that will likely be met with initial push-back by the students. However, once inertia is overcome and momentum is built up, and both the instructor and students are more comfortable moving away from the traditional passive lecture format, the benefits of active learning will be reaped.


References & Useful Links

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics PNAS 2014 111 (23) 84108415; doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Article and Handouts on Active Learning


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