Teaching tips for instructors

Here are some common challenges instructors face in the university classroom, along with some ideas and links to further resources.

Q: How do I increase active learning in the large classroom?  

Q: How do I know students are learning prior to a mid-term assessment?

Q: How do I motivate students to learn?


Q: HOW DO I INCREASE ACTIVE LEARNING IN THE LARGE CLASSROOM? Note: These ideas can be adapted and work equally well with small or medium-sized classes.

A: What is a large class? If you feel as though your class is large, then it is!

One of the easiest ways to increase active learning in a large, lecture-style class is with Personal Response Systems (known as clickers). You can find information about whether clickers are right for your class by going here.

However, there are many other options if you want to increase active learning in your class without personal response systems or in conjunction with them. Here are some ideas from the Faculty Focus special report:  Strategies for Teaching Large Classes (view entire report as a pdf). 

COOPERATIVE LEARNING GROUPS : Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 students and have them do some of the following activities throughout the course:

  • Jigsaws -- Students read and share research articles or other reading assignments they have done on their own. Then, individual students must teach the essential content to the rest of their group.
  • Research -- Assign each group in the class a specific topic to research, which they will then teach to the rest of the class. For example, at the University of Minnesota, groups in the veterinary virology class each are assigned a virus family to research and teach to their peers.
  • Group Tests or Quizzes -- Students take a test or quiz in two ways: individually and as a group. After the individual testing, students meet in their groups to take the same test collaboratively. The student's final grade is an average of both scores.
  • Discussion Groups -- Students discuss readings and video presentations as a group that they have previously viewed/read on their own. Students are required to turn in worksheets prior to the discussion to make sure they have done the assignment and are prepared to discuss it in their group. The TA checks for completed sheets when students come to class. Students also receive guidelines for having a successful discussion, including what kinds of things they are looking for in the reading and/or video. Several groups are randomly called on to present a report from their discussion to the rest of the class.
  • Fluid, Virtual Groups -- Group members are given the options of working face-to-face, by phone or online. The membership of the groups changes throughout the course. Brian Dineen ("TeamXchange: A team project experience involving virtual teams and fluid team membership" Journal of Management Education, 29(4), 593-616, 2005) found that 70 percent of his students chose the virtual group setting. The fluidity of the groups nearly eliminated social loafing -- team members relying on other group members to do the work for them. 
  • Online Discussion Groups -- Set up a discussion board on Canvas and assign study groups of up to 10 students to engage in threaded discussions. Create a rubric for students to assess each other's work.
  • Check out this rubric for ideas about pairing students for cooperative learning exercises.

AVOIDING SOCIAL LOAFING -- In order to keep the groups on task and avoid one or two members doing all of the work, group members are assigned roles, such as recorder, gatekeeper (making sure all members participate), checker (checks for group member consensus and understanding) and divergent thinker (responsible for presenting the group with new ideas.) According to Deb Wingert and Tom Molitor, science faculty at the University of Minnesota, groups are accountable and graded for how well they work together as well as for producing completed assignments.
(See pp. 11, 12, 15 and 16 of the Faculty Focus report cited above for more information about collaborative learning groups.)

INTERACTIVE LECTURES : Chunking the lecture time into 10- to 12-minute pieces while interspersing them with other activities can help students grasp, apply and analyze the content rather than just memorize it, according to Wingert and Molitor.
One of their interactive lectures in a science classroom at the University of Minnesota might look like this:

  • an attention-getting introduction, such as music, a cartoon or a provocative question; 
  • 10 to 12 minutes of lecture; 
  • students working in small groups (two or three people) talking about, writing about and working on sample test items or problems from the lecture they just heard;
  • another 10- to 12-minute lecture chunk; 
  • more group work;
  • the class time ending with an assessment measure, such as a one-minute paper on the muddiest point of the class.
    (See p.11 of the Faculty Focus report cited above for more information about interactive lectures.)

USE PEER INSTRUCTION AND BECOME A CONVERTED LECTURER: "I thought I was a good teacher until I discovered my students were just memorizing information rather than learning to understand the material," says Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University. "Who was to blame? The students? The material? I will explain how I came to the agonizing conclusion that the culprit was neither of these. It was my teaching that caused students to fail! I will show how I have adjusted my approach to teaching and how it has improved my students' performance significantly." 

CREATIVE QUESTIONING: Daniel Klionsky, biology instructor at the University of California-Davis, says that in a large class, students feel safe in their anonymity and it is difficult to get them to participate in their own learning. His remedy starts on the first day of class by setting the tone of active participation from the students. 

  • First, he tells the students he not only welcomes but highly encourages questions. In a class of 300, he explains, if one student has a question, there are likely a dozen other students with the same question.
  • Second, he makes the entire class raise their hands in his initial class, then divides the class up and has different sections raising their hands at different times. This exercise shows them they are clearly capable of raising their hands in class and should do so whenever they need to.
  • Third, he gets them to interact with him on the first day of class by asking a question that they can guess the answer to and are not penalized for answering wrongly.
  • Fourth, he coaxes questions until he elicits a response. If no one responds to his query, "Are there any questions," he follows with, "So if I were to ask this question on a mid-term, everyone would know how to respond?" This usually elicits several responses.
  • Fifth, he phrases questions in a way that is less risky for a student to answer. Rather than asking one student to come up with a particular number for the question, "Where does our water fall on the hardness scale?" he can ask, "Raise your hands if you think our water has a hardness of less than two," etc. The latter is much more likely to draw a response and get students to participate in the discussion.
    (For a full explanation of Klionsky's creative questioning techniques, see pp. 13-14 of the Faculty Focus report cited above.)

Additional resources:

Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty , edited by Christine A. Stanley and M. Erin Porter.

CERTI Active Learning webpage

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A: Finding out how well students are learning content in your classroom has traditionally be done in a summative fashion -- that is, formal testing at the end of a unit, at mid-term and/or at semester's end. However, if you want to ensure better learning outcomes at the end of the course, the best way is to assess student learning while it's happening, also known as formative assessment.

Here are some ideas for formative assessment:

1. EMPLOY CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques) . The handbook Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd Edition describes 50 different techniques for teachers to use to monitor learning, as well as the purpose, suggestions for use, and estimated levels of time and energy required to implement each one. A copy of this manual is available on loan from the CERTI office.

Here are a few of the easiest CATs to try if you are just getting started:

  • The Minute Paper -- asks students to respond to two questions at the end of class: What was the most important thing you learned today? What questions remain uppermost in your mind as we conclude this class session?
  • The Muddiest Point -- At the end of the lecture, students are asked to write brief a brief answer to the question: What was the muddiest point in my lecture today?
  • The One-Sentence Summary -- Students are asked to summarize a large amount of information in a condensed format by responding to the prompt: Who did what to/for whom, when, where, how and why?
  • Directed Paraphrasing -- Students are asked to paraphrase a concept or procedure they just learned for a specific audience in two or three sentences.
  • Applications Cards -- After students hear or read about an important concept or procedure, they are given an index card and are asked to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have learned.

2. USE INFORMAL STUDENT EVALUATIONS. Another way to assess learning/teaching is to have students evaluate the class before mid-term. Do a free-hand, one-page student questionnaire called "How Are We Doing So Far?" 


  • What are three important things you have learned so far? 
  • What are three aspects of the class that have been of the most help to you in learning so far?
  • What are three things you wish were different? 

Tabulate the answers and present the information to the class. Explain why you need to do certain aspects that may have elicited complaints. Make any changes you are able to immediately, pointing back to the student feedback. (Borrowed from Craig E. Nelson, nelson1@indiana.edu, emeritus professor of biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, http://mypage.iu.edu/~nelson1/)

Another similar procedure is the 3-2-1 evaluation. Students are directed to state three themes or concepts they learned during the unit, two questions that they still had, and one idea they wanted to share with others. (see p. 8 of Put to the Test: Making Sense of Educational Assessment, a Faculty Focus special report.)

3. USE PRINCIPALS OF JUST-IN-TIME TEACHING. " Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT for short) is a teaching and learning strategy based on the interaction between web-based study assignments and an active learner classroom. Students respond electronically to carefully constructed web-based assignments which are due shortly before class, and the instructor reads the student submissions "just-in-time" to adjust the classroom lesson to suit the students' needs. Thus, the heart of JiTT is the 'feedback loop' formed by the students' outside-of-class preparation that fundamentally affects what happens during the subsequent in-class time together." (Excerpt from the Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis website on JiTT. Go here for more information.)

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A: Student learning is closely tied to motivation, which can be both external (grades, money, other rewards) or intrinsic. How can instructors tap into students' intrinsic motivations to learn? Here is what the research reveals about intrinsic motivation in the classroom: 

--Involve students' natural curiosity in the learning process. Asking questions in teaching rather than only presenting facts improves learning. Questions that arouse curiosity about things already familiar to the student are the most effective. Check out the Good Questions Project from the Department of Mathematics, Cornell University. 

--Give students choices and a sense of personal control in their own learning. "We learn best what we feel we need to know. Intrinsic motivation remains inextricably bound to some level of choice and control." (Dr. Barbara J. Millis, Director, The Teaching and Learning Center, The University of Texas at San Antonio)

--Give students feedback about how they are improving throughout the course. Give students the opportunity to succeed. If they are doing poorly, provide encouragement and guidance for improvement. If they are doing well, present new challenges.

--Involve students in cooperative learning and other peer instruction methods. Hear from Eric Mazur, Harvard physics instructor who developed peer instruction, about his personal journey in teaching on this YouTube video.

--Establish specific, challenging goals for individual students by having them write their goals regarding what they want to get out of your course (other than a good grade!).  Then, have students develop a plan of action necessary for achieving these goals and have them record progress toward their goals.

The above information taken from "McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers," McKeachie, Wilbert J., Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA, available from the CERTI library.

Other resources: Faculty Focus special report, Building Student Engagement: 15 Strategies for the College Classroom.

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