Engaging Active Learning in Large-scale Courses

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Can the small-classroom benefits of active learning be replicated in large-scale online classrooms? Together we will explore curriculum design and teaching strategies that do just that. Through group brainstorming and effective examples from a synchronous online platform, participants will enhance their ability to create experiences that keep students engaged.


Sponsored By


Megan Gahl is a Curriculum Designer at Minerva Project and Associate Professor with Minerva Schools at KGI. She works to develop engaging active learning curriculum for Higher Education learners using Minerva's synchronous online platform. Coming from an active learning background as a former Montessorian, Megan has developed active learning courses for a wide variety of audiences over the past few decades from elementary school through adult learners. Though if you meet her in person, Megan might introduce herself as an academic and ecologist, since much of her career has been University-level teaching and research in ecology and environmental studies.

Additional Authors

Extended Abstract

Replacing lectures with active learning is an increasingly popular approach to teaching across educational platforms — and for good reason. Active learning has been shown to improve student outcomes, especially in STEM fields. Active learning is often thought to work best in smaller seminar-size courses that allow more engagement from both students and the instructor. But inevitably, some courses are necessarily larger than an ideal small-scale active learning class, whether because of funding, school growth, or high interest on the part of students. Can active learning still engage students in these large-scale courses? 


Some aspects of active-learning translate easily to large-scale classes. For example, small group activities, polling, and assessment can be implemented the same in both large-scale and small-scale classes. In addition, the instructor-to-student ratio can remain similar by using TAs, as is common in introductory lecture courses. 


However, there are some problems with implementing active learning in large-scale courses. First, students have less opportunity to speak in whole-class discussions and therefore may be less engaged. If students have less opportunity to engage during a whole-class discussion, the experience becomes similar to the passive listening involved in a lecture course. Second, instructors and TAs may resort to debriefing small group activities themselves, rather than opening the debrief up for discussion by students. In part, this is because the instructor may have less visibility into which groups might be best to call on, may know fewer of the students by name, and also because of the chaotic nature of in-person large-scale classrooms. 


Our goal for this session is to explore strategies to overcome these obstacles to effective active learning in large-scale classrooms. 


We have been developing and testing curriculum for large-scale synchronous online classrooms over the past year, and key takeaways from our work will help to guide this discussion. For example, small-group work continues to be an effective way to engage students in active learning even in large-scale classes. But, debriefs and whole-class activities in large-scale classes require more thoughtful instructional design and more effective teaching strategies to actively engage students. Because activity design and effective teaching are so key to engaging active learning in large-scale settings, they will be our focus for this discussion.


In this session, we will work together to brainstorm creative solutions to teach active learning effectively in large-scale classes. In two separate breakout groups, we will identify key strategies for engaging students in large-scale active learning classes during whole-class activities and debriefs. Each breakout will focus on a different aspect of student engagement in large-scale online classes:

  1. Activity structure (i.e., curriculum design)

  2. Teaching strategies (i.e., best practices to maintain engagement as an instructor when leading discussions in large-scale active learning classes)

To share and consolidate breakout group ideas, we will model 2-3 different debrief methods that we have found to be successful in our large-scale active learning courses. 


Participants will leave this session with a toolbox of effective strategies to engage students in large-scale active learning classes, including activity structures and teaching strategies to engage students in whole-class discussions in large-scale active learning courses.