Marc Sprague-Piercy, Department of Molecular Biology & Biochemistry

The current thinking in pedagogy is moving away from the traditional classroom model. In the traditional classroom for large classes of undergraduates there is a clear plan. The students are given a series of readings that are to be done before or after the class, there are 3 or so hours of lecture a week, and then there are two to three exams to assess learning. The cutting edge of pedagogy is looking to change this arrangement. For example, there is the idea of the flipped classroom where all of the content for the class is taken in before the class period and the class time is spent doing active learning activities. Or a few large multiple choice exams are replaced with a number of smaller and more varied kinds of assessments that give students more ways to interact with the material. Individual multiple choice exams can be replaced with group exams and the like. A more active learning environment than the traditional classroom offers the potential for better student engagement and increased student satisfaction[1]. There is even agreement among many educators that active learning would be good for the student [2], but in many classrooms the ideas underpinning it are not being adopted.

Why Do We Even Just Do Lecture?

While these newer methods are exciting, there is a significant barrier to adoption of the methods even if these methods prove to be much more effective at teaching. The traditional method of teaching is easy to implement for a large classroom. Preparing a lecture is much easier than creating a whole set of active learning activities. Writing, and grading, two multiple choice exams is much faster and easier than doing the same for a short answer exam for 450 students. Speaking from experience, I hate grading. It is time consuming and sometimes I feel like I hate giving a bad grade more than some students hate getting one. Adding any assignments that require teaching assistants to grade is a large time sink on graduate students that already have a full plate of work with regards to their own theses. I don’t want to do anymore grading than I have to so there is a clear conflict here. Direct interaction with students and working in groups is simpler to manage for smaller classes than larger classes.

Can It Really be Done?

Unless there is a mass hire of teaching at the university level very soon, I don’t think that class sizes for freshman and sophomore classes will be dropping in the near future. But as an educator it is my responsibility to ensure that my classroom is the most effective and engaging that it can possibly be. There are some very real and unfortunate limits on what I can spend my time on, but all that really means is that I have to get creative. The concepts that are guiding modern pedagogical thinking can be applied to a large classroom, but the unique challenges of large classrooms are going to require novel solutions. A flipped classroom can be implemented by offering the traditional lecture as a video before class and then the class time spent as a discussion on the material with some problems to work on as a group. To ensure that the reading was done or the video was watched, a short, and automatically graded, online quiz can be given. This also gives the students more immediate feedback on their progress in the class. If the geography of the classroom allows it, forming groups of 5 or so is not difficult. And if the students have bought in to this model, then they would be more likely to actually participate in the discussions. Class discussions can be very important for improving learning outcomes [3]. Exams can even be given as group exams in a large classroom setting, where students are given multiple choice exams, but these exams would involve a smaller number of questions that all test the higher order Bloom’s levels to facilitate discussion of the problems as a group. These ideas will result in more work for the TAs and lecturers, but it is not so much work as to be impossible to implement with proper planning.


  1. Hyun, J. Ediger, R. Lee, D. Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. 2017. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, v29 n1 p108-118.
  2. Sanders, K. Boustedt, J. Eckerdal, A. McCartney, R. and Zander, C. 2017. Folk Pedagogy: Nobody Doesn’t Like Active Learning. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research (ICER ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 145–154.
  3. Smith, M. K. Wood, W. B. Adams, W. K. Wieman, C. Knight, J. K. Guild, N. Su., T. T. 2009 Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science : 122-124 

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.