Large Classes in Large (Flat Floor) Spaces: Observing Active Learning

The University of Queensland, Australia

The University of Queensland, Australia

The University of Queensland, Australia


Active learning approaches are being adopted in higher education for reasons of cost effectiveness, reduced teaching contact hours, the promises of improved student learning and greater student engagement (Graham, Woodfield, & Harrison, 2013; TEDI, 2003; Twigg, 2003). Practice has shown that active learning classes are preferably taught using flat floor spaces with tables positioned to promote student interaction. These activities are usually facilitated by a mobile teaching team in tutorial and seminar rooms (Whiteside, Jorn, Duin, & Fitzgerald, 2009), in purpose built spaces (Robertson, 2013) or traditional lecture theatres using interactive technologies (Poirier & Feldman, 2007). However, in the context of very large classes, other solutions are emerging.

This poster documents observations of the active learning sessions of three large to very large introductory courses (biology and two engineering) at an Australian research intensive university. The sessions were a vast 'convention-like' space seating between 470 and 650 students at round tables in groups of ten. To reduce the observation and data analysis load on the small evaluations team, an observation tool was developed to capture, at set time intervals, student behaviours and activities occurring at individual tables and in the hall. Interactive behaviours were observed during active learning sessions and the tool was found to be useful in differentiating courses that were more or less active. Observer notes gave essential meaning and richness to the data collected using the tool. An online poll conducted with all students supported observations that interactive learning was occurring and students open-ended comments revealed some unexpected social benefits of the sessions.

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