Personalization and Active Learning in the Large Introductory

Personalization and Active Learning in the Large
Introductory Psychology Class
Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.
Texas A&M University
Addressing selected issues and strateees in teaching the large
introductory psychology class, this article focuses on personalizing
the large class, making large classes into small classes to facili~tr
uctive learning, and incorporating active learning into the large
This article discusses issues inherent in teaching large
sections of introductory psychology and strategies for dealing
with them. Specifically, I (a) discuss the importance of personalizing the large class, (b) describe ways to make large
classes into small classes to facilitate active learning, and (c)
describe strategies to promote active learning in the large
A few observations about class size set the stage. First, the
average undergraduate class size has increased steadily in this
century, especially during the last several decades (Carnegie
Foundation for the Advancement of Education, 1986). Although most professors and students prefer small classes,
economic realities indicate that large classes are here to stay
(Gleason, 1986; McKeachie, 1986).
Second, large classes are now found in small colleges as
well as in laree
" universities. Pressures to increase enrollment
without adding faculty and to expand the curriculum contribute to larger classes. Curriculum expansion is often accomplished by combining many small sections of the same
course into one huge class to make room for another course
in the teaching schedule (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education, 1986; Krabill, 1981).
Third. concern with ~ossibleadverse effects of large classes is not a recent phenomenon. McKeachie (1980) suggested that class size was probably the first issue of college
teaching to be subjected to educational research (e.g., Edmonson & Mulder, 1924; Hudelson, 1928). That interest in
class size continues and is supported by the nearly 200 relevant citations found in a search of the literature since 1960.
This field of studv is so well established that it bears its own
acronym-LGI or large-group instruction.
I do not propose to survey that literature in detail. Interested readers are referred to Klein (1985), Lewis and
Woodward (1984), McKeachie (1980, 1986), and Williams, Cook, Quinn, and Jensen (1985) for more comprehensive treatments. However, a brief summarv of the research on class size sets the stage for the discussion that
Even restricting this summary to the studies on college
classes, conflicting results still abound. These contradictions arise for several reasons, including differences in out68
come measures, length of study, and the contounding oi
numerous variables, such as teaching method and instructor
Part of the difficulty in making sense of LC31 literature
begins with the definition of what constitutes ;I large class.
Some studies have compared small classes of 7 students with
large classes of 40; others have compared small classes of 40
students with large classes of 300. Although agreement IS
not universal, recent literature seems to have settled on :I
figure of 100 or more for defining the large class.
Small and large classes have been compared and contrasted with respect to many variables, such as these important ones: performance on exams, long-term retention of rhc
course material, student attitudes toward the discipline, student attitudes toward the instructor, student ability, Instructional methods, course objectives, course management, ,ind
testing methods. McKeachie (1980) summarized this literature, and his conclusions have not been altereci by an aciditional decade of research. He wrote:
. . . large lectures are not generally inferior to smaller Iccture classes when traditional ach~e\.ementtests are used ;rs , I
criterion. When other ohjectlves are measured, large Icctures are on shakler ground. Go:ils c)f higher Icvcl thinking,
application, motivation, and att~tudinalchange are mo~r
likely to be achieved In small classes. Moreover, both s t u dents and faculty members feel that teaching 1s rnorc effefecrive in small classes. . . . In general, large classes ,Ire simply
not as effective as small classes for retention o f knowledge.
critical thinking, and attitude change. (pp. 2(7-27)
Although McKeach~e'sgeneral conclusions ,Ire it111 ,rciu
rate, at least one study can be c ~ t e dto cast doubt on each o i
hls cla~msfor the superlorlty ot \n~,lllclasse\
L ~ k emost teachers , ~ n dstudents, 1 helleve tli,lr \m,lll 1 4
better. In small classes, course man'jgement I\ easier. In
teractlon wlth student5 15 t~cllltated,option\ tor te~chln!:
techniques are greater, m d more methods tor el ;llu,ltlng
student learnlng are feas~hle.Perhaps rn ,In lde,ll ~ o r l ctherc
would be no large classes Howeker, economrc con,lder,i
tlona guarantee thelr contlnuecl existence In hlgher eJucci
tlon, espec~allyIn the absence of evtdence \ilgge\tlng t h ~ t
they are lneffectlve Some ~nstructc)rsh d ~ e~onclereil11
rather than trylng to Improve teachrng large iI,l\se\, ' \ i t
mlght be better off juit uslng our energ) to trght ,Ig,lln,t
tedchlng under these condrtlon\" (Srlver<teu), 1982, jl
155) However, Sllversre~nrejected that \tr,iteg\ m d ic
cepted the challenge of teach~ngl,~rqeclai\es \\ell 1 r c ~ l 1 1 L
Teaching of Psychology
tantly acknowledge this reality and try to improve the educational experience for students in my large classes.
Large introductory psychology classes are not a recent
phenomenon. A t the University of Leipzig in the 1880s,
Wilhelm Wundt's introductory psychology class contained
approximately 300 students. Edward Bradford Titchener's
description of Wundt's class, written when he was a student
at Leipzig in 1890, sounds familiar. Titchener told us that
with the room filled, Wundt walked to the front of the class,
leaned on the podium, his notes resting between his elbows,
and lectured for 1 hr, after which he gathered up his notes
and left the room (Baldwin, 1921).
Class size may be similar today, but staffing large classes is
different. A t the turn of this century, the beginning course
in psychology was commonly taught by the senior faculty
member-Titchener, William James, and G. Stanley Hall,
to name a few. Today that class is often taught by graduate
students or new faculty members. Attracting senior faculty
to this course has become increasingly difficult (Griggs,
Lange, & Meyer, 1988). In some institutions, teaching the
introductorv course is a mark of low status, which disturbs
me. T h e introductory course is the most important course in
the undergraduate curriculum. It is also the most difficult
course to teach well. Giving full responsibility for that
course to graduate students and beginning faculty members
serves neither well, nor does it do justice to the undergraduate students. And assigning beginning teachers to large
classes only compounds the problems (Weimer, 1987). A
procedure that partially addresses this issue and calls for a
fairer use of graduate teaching assistants (TAs) is described
Large classes are essentially lecture courses. Studies using
in-class observers report that the lecture occupies 80% t o
95% of class time, with less than 5% involving student
participation (Lewis & Woodward, 1984). In fact, the larger
the class size, the more likely it is that class time will be filled
exclusively with lectures (Lewis, 1982).
When lecturers ask questions in large classes, their questions are usually rhetorical or procedural. A n example of the
latter is, "Does everyone know the reading assignment for
tomorrow?" Such questions are not meant to engage students in active learning. Although some students enjoy the
anonymity provided by large classes, more students complain about the impersonal nature of those classes (Lewis &
Woodward, 1984; Wulff, Nyquist, & Abbott, 1987). The
remainder of this article addresses two related issues--depersonalization and the perceived lack of opportunities for active learning.
Personalizing t h e Large Class
Depersonalization can affect students' interest in and en,
joyment of the course, both of which are likely to affect how
much a student learns (Gleason, 1986; McConnell & Sosin,
1984; Wulff et al., 1987). Personalizing the class starts with
the instructor knowing the studer,ts' names. Yet as class
enrollments mushroom beyond 153 students, this ideal
ceases to be attainable for most instructors. One of my colleagues uses mnemonics to learn the names of his class of 250
students (see Smith, 1985). Another professor I know takes
Polaroid photographs of his 100 students the first day of class
Vol. 18, No. 2, April 1991
and successfully matches all names and faces by the second
I am either lazier or less gifted in learning the names of the
250 students in my class. 1 try to learn most of their names by
the end of the course by studying a seating chart, especially
while they are taking exams. By the time of the first exam, I
know many of their faces, at least those in the first few rows,
so I spend exam time matching names with those faces. I
learn about one third of the names at that time and can later
direct questions to students by name or call some of them by
name when their hands are raised. Some students are
shocked that 1 know their names, and I try to give the
impression that I know all their names.
Some instructors teach sections of 1,200 students, and it
seems unlikely that any procedure would be effective for
them. However, my advice is that you try to learn your
students' names. Do not take the attitude that having a large
class excuses you from that responsibility.
I also use the seating chart to record attendance each day.
I do this partly because my university requires such records,
although what faculty members do with attendance data is
their business. There is another reason to record attendance,
even if you do not require it. Pearson (1986) reported that
"students feel more obligated to go to class when the instructor knows if they are present" (p. 9).
Another device for combating depersonalization is the
autobiographical sheet that I distribute during the first week
of class. Students fill it out in class and turn it in before
leaving. I ask them to list their hometown, year in college,
and major. I ask them why they are taking the course and
what they hope to get out of it. Some students share Shakespeare's belief about the "soul of wit," and they answer: "It's
required" and "An A." I ask them about their job (if they
work) and about what they like to do when they are not
being students. I also ask them if there is anything they
would like to ask me or anything else they would like for me
to know about them.
I read those autobiographies, usually in an evening, taking notes about items I want to use in class. Throughout the
course, I try to use some of that material. For example, an
aerospace engineering student told me she was taking the
course because she wanted something totally unrelated to
her major. Because of that comment, I used several occasions in class to talk about why aerospace engineers might be
interested in such psychological topics as human factors,
pilot selection and training, flight crew compatibility, and
decision making regarding shuttle launches.
I try to answer all questions, either in class or by note to
the student, and try to let them know that I read what they
wrote by commenting in class. I avoid personal information
and would not knowingly say anything to embarrass a student. I will use a student's name when appropriate, perhaps
by saying something like, "I got a most interesting question
from Ms. Gloria Ortiz." I may even ask her to raise her hand
so I and other members of the class can know who she is,
after which 1 answer the question. Students' questions can
be used throughout the course as relevant topics appear.
Having traveled around Texas enough to know something
about many of my students' hometowns, I may comment in
class about a particularly good pit barbecue restaurant or an
attractive courthouse located there. Sometimes I tease
them, for example: "Mr. Randall Martin, where are you? I
see that you graduated from San Antonio Brackenridge High
School. They defeated us in football when I was in high
school, and I have never forgotten it. As a result, the best
grade you can hope for in this class is a C." I say it all with a
straight face and smile only after the rest of the class laughs.
The important purpose of this approach is to let students
know that I took the time to read what they wrote and was
interested enough to comment on some of it.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has a more formal
program for giving instructors of large classes information
about their students (Wright & Bond, 1985). From information in official records, each student is described in terms of
149 demographic and attitudinal variables. These data are
provided in summary form to the LGI faculty. Faculty members can meet with an educational consultant to discuss the
results of the class analysis and how they might be used to
promote student achievement.
All these procedures allow instructors to learn something
about the people who occupy the chairs in their classrooms.
The knowledge teachers gain may influence their selection
of lectures, activities, or examples, matching them to specific student interests. Good teachers know their audience. For
other ideas on ~ersonalizing large classes, see Aronson
(1987), Gleason (1986), and Rosenkoetter (1984).
Lecturing Versus Active Learning
Many instructors probably chose the teaching profession
because they enjoy talking more than listening. As one of
my students described it, "Professors love to profess." Maybe
that is why the lecture is the dominant teaching mode regardless of class size (Eble, 1988). Some of us may even
believe that students are incapable of leaming unless the
truth goes from our mouths to their ears. We are reluctant to
give up valued lecture time to other teaching techniques or
to students.
I believe that we lecture so much because it is easier and
safer than other teaching techniques. Other methods usually
require more preparation, such as assembling equipment for
demonstrations, meeting with groups of students outside
class to prepare for simulations, and preparing handouts for
in-class exercises that have to be read and analyzed for class
feedback. After you have taught introductory psychology for
a few years, preparing a lecture probably takes less time than
many other things you might do in class. It may also be the
case that less can go wrong with a lecture; thus, its reliability
adds to its attractiveness.
As noted earlier, some students enjoy the anonymity of
the large lecture class that leaves them with little responsibility other than taking notes. Students report feeling less
pressure in lecture classes, and the larger the class the less
pressure they feel (Weimer, 1987). Even if every student felt
that way, I would object to a course that allowed complete
Fortunately, many students resent being viewed as empty
vessels to be filled by their professor. They want a more
active role, and the large class should not prevent that involvement. Think about the students who take the beginning course in psychology. This course in the science of
behavior is not their first exposure to behavior. They have
heen observing and thinking about behavior all of their
lives. Insights will occur to them while they are reading their
textbook and when you are lecturing. When will they have
the opportunity to express those insights to you? Most students hesitate to comment in a large lecture, even when told
that it is okay to interrupt the instructor.
Barbara Nodine (personal communication, September 1 ,
1989) suggested using informal, ungraded writing activities
during the lecture to make student participation more active
and more personal. Stopping the lecture and asking students
to write an answer to a discussion question and then proceeding- with a lecture-discussion that includes student reactions will be much more interactive. Asking students to
record their thoughts will make each one of them (not just
those who speak during the class) more interested in what
you say. As you make points, you could ask students to raise
their hands if they had a similar idea. Or you can tell students to exchange their summaries or answers with the persons next to them. Thus, in a short time, vou can create an
occasion for every student to have a dialogue with someone
about the lecture mater~al.
You might ask students to come to class with personal
anecdotes illustrating points from lecture or their textbooks
that they would be willing to share. Exchanging anecdotes
with the people seated next to them and perhaps submitting
a few unusual ones to be read to the entire class is an effective
means of engaging students personally and actively with the
course material. For a description of other ungraded "writing
to learn" exercises, see Maimon, Nodine, Hearn, and
Haney-Peritz (1 990).
Although some instructors will be uncomfortable with
such interruptions, there are compelling reasons to supplement the lecture. If onlv the lecture is used, how can students be taught about perceptual adaptation to displaced
vision, the difficulties of mirror tracing, the nature of polarization in group decisions, the application of mnemonics, or
the nature of propositional reasoning? These phenomena,
and many others in psychology, are better i~nderstoodby
active learnine.
The educational literature is filled with studies s u.~. ~ o r t i n r
the advantages of active learning, a term used to describe a
broad array of learning situations in which students enjoy
hands-on and minds-on experiences (e.g., Brothen, 1986;
Frederick, 1987; Michaelsen, 1983; Wittrock, 1984). Students learn through simulations, games, demonstrations,
discussions, debates, problem solving, interactive lectures,
and the kinds of writing exercises described earlier.
How important is active leaming? The National Institute
of Education's 1984 report, Involvement in Learning: Realizing
the Potential o f American Hiaher
- Education, identified actlve
leamlng as the Number 1 prlorlty In Amerlcan h~ghere d u ~ a tlon today. That report emphas~zedthe speclal lmportdnce
of such learning experiences for the development of h~gher
cognltlve a b ~ l ~ t i and
e s for affect~vedevelopment But how
can actlve learnlng be accompl~shedin large classes? The
short answer is-not easilv. The best answer is to turn vour
large-class swords into small-class plowshares.
T u r n i n g Large Classes Into Small O n e s
O n e teaching model divides some of the large-class hours
into small-group classes to facilitate active leaming. With
Teaching of Psychology
movable chairs, one can create small groups within the large
classroom, but many large classrooms do not permit that.
O n e popular alternative is to schedule the small groups at
different times and places (Mendenhall & Burr, 1983;
Michaelsen, 1983; Silverstein, 1982; Weaver, 1983). My
approach involves dividing a class of 250 into groups of
about 30 each. The large class meets twice a week, and the
small groups meet once each week. A t some universities, the
ratio is reversed with students meeting in their small groups
twice each week (Silverstein, 1982). The small groups in my
course are led by two graduate TAs, each with responsibility
for four groups per week.
We do thlngs in the smaller groups that we cannot do in
the large class. Thus, we do not show films or use demonstrations and exercises that could be used as effectively for a large
group. Lecturing is kept to the minimum needed for the day's
activity, usually in the form of giving instructions about the
Small-group activities are coordinated each week with the
content of the text and the large class. I meet weekly with
the TAs to plan the activity for the coming week, typically
rehearsing those parts that we can. Activities are planned to
involve all students; for many of our exercises, everyone in
the class has a role to plav.
Students spend the entire first period getting to know one
another and their T A . W e use the autobiographical sheets
described earlier to accom~lishthat. I usuallv attend all of
the small-group classes during the first week because it gives
me a head start o n getting to know my students. I also attend
other meetings of the small groups throughout the semester.
T h e exercises in these small classes are planned with specific educational goals in mind. They typically involve considerable structure, but we also try to include some activities
that encourage students to explore their own interests. In
these small classes, students practice deep muscle relaxation, often used in anxiety therapies; construct their own
personality test, administer it to subjects outside the class,
and collect, analyze, and discuss their data (Benjamin,
1983); wear prism displacement goggles until adaptation has
occurred, discovering why the adaptation represents a motor
change and not a visual one and experiencing the brief
exasperation of readaptation (Benjamin, 1981); discuss the
concept of aggression in a critical thinking exercise using
data collected from their own small group (Benjamin,
1985); try to identify a "murderer" by using a number of
measures such as galvanic skin responses, word associations,
response latencies, and nonverbal cues; and transport themselves back in time via a simulated first-grade class that
allows them to learn how to read all over again and to
understand what books look like to those who cannot read.
After vears of refinement. we now have exercises that score
high o n measures of learning and satisfaction.
T h e teaching experience is usually gratifying for the T A
who prepares a lesson once each week and practices it four
times. The duties are considerable, but far less demanding
than having full responsibility for a lecture course. Too often
graduate students are given little or no preparation for teaching. Part of the value of our approach is the diversity of
teaching techniques used in the srrall classes. The T A galns
f a m ~ l i a r iwith
t ~ such methods as simulations, discussion exercises, role-playing, and demonstrations. Coupled with
some guest lectures in the large class, leading the small
Vol. 18, No. 2, April 1993
groups is an excellent apprenticeship for TAs who might
later have full responsibility for a course.
For the instructor. these classes are alwavs a lot of work,
despite using many of the same exercises each year. That is
partly because TAs change every two or three semesters, so
there are always new people to train. I often think how much
easier it would be iust to lecture for that third hour, but then
I read the course 'evaluations that indicate how highly students rate the small classes. A t my university of 42,000
students, this class of 30 may be the smallest a student will
have all year. Some regularly make that comment in their
evaluations. Many remark about actually being able to express their own ideas in a class. Some talk about how it helps
them to meet other people in the class. One couple who met
in a small group announced their wedding to the group on
the final day of the course. However, matchmaking is not
one of my course objectives.
I have used this approach for 10 consecutive years. 1 continue to use it because of the active learning- opportunities
-for the students, their obvious enjoyment of the exercises,
and the close contact it provides me with my TAs.
I think the best solution to the large class is to create small
classes within it. Some of you may say that you cannot use
the model I have described or one of its variants because you
do not have graduate TAs available. My reply is that under-graduate students can serve the same function. I taught
- for 8
years at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a 4-year liberal arts
college of approximately 1,200 students. We used junior and
senior psychology majors to assist in a number of classes and
laboratories, and many of them served with distinction.
There is considerable literature on peer teaching by undergraduates and on programs that combine undergraduate and
graduate TAs, such as pyramid plans (McKeachie, 1986).
This literature generally
rates performance of student teachers quite highly. (For some of the variations using undergraduate TAs in psychology courses, see Gnagey, 1979;
Kohn & Brill, 1981; Mendenhall & Burr, 1983; White &
Kolber, 1978; Wortman & Hillis, 1976.)
Some colleges and universities use so many TAs that they
divide large classes into small groups of 5 to 7. These smallgroup formats require more work from the supervising teacher, but the rewards are worth the extra effort. If the smallgroup class is not something you can or will try and if you
acknowledge the value of active learning, what can you do
to facilitate it in the large class?
Active Learning i n t h e Large Class
If you ask professors what they like about small classes,
many will say "the opportunity for discussion," even when
no discussion occurs. These same professors often say that
discussion is impossible in large classes, and they conclude
that the only alternative is to lecture.
I do not denigrate the lecture method. It has dominated
the educational scene for centuries, and its survival is not
due solely to tradition or inertia. The lecture has many
advantages, perhaps the greatest of which is its ability to
impart a large amount of information in a short time. However, lectures usually relegate students to a completely passive role in the learning process. Involvingstudents in active
learning necessarily reduces the amount of information that
can be presented in class. The quantitative loss often allows
for a qualitative gain. I am not asking you to stop giving
lectures. I am asking you to replace some lectures with active
learning exercises for your large class.
If you do not use active learning exercises in your large
class, you might experiment by adding a few throughout the
course. If you already use several favorite exercises, you
might consider expanding your repertoire. One reasonable
goal would be to include an active learning activity in every
class period except on review and examination days. Some
of these exercises might require the entire period; others
might be used for only a few minutes. Good exercises will
increase students' interest and motivation. Students will
expect to have some direct involvement in the class instead
of just taking notes from a lecture.
Most teachers of introductory psychology use a textbook.
These books tend to be encyclopedic, averaging 600 to 900
pages, and there are many good ones from which to choose.
After examining these books, I must admit that almost everything 1 want students to know about psychology is in their
textbook. 1 assume that college students can read and understand these books o n their own. Given that assumption,
what is my role as a teacher? 1 can lecture from the book,
which will bore those who have read and understood their
assignments. Instead, I lecture on topics not in the book or
expand on some that are.
1 am not obligated to cover the text material at all, unless I
believe that some psychological phenomenon is either
poorly explained or wrongly interpreted. Therefore, I can
rely on the text to accomplish one very important course
objective: to provide the basic content of psychology. That
frees me to pursue other objectives in Iny lectures.
I might want my students to become familiar with the
scientific method and how a scientific attitude can be used in
everyday life, to recognize the relevance of psychology ti)
current events, to learn some problem-solving strategies, to
think critically, to develop some social skills, to apply the
information learned in their text, or to learn ,a bout some
psychological phenomena that are largely experiential in
nature. Some of those goals can be accomplished by the
lecture, but others can be achieved only hy involving students in active learning.
As noted earlier, these active learning exercises can be
part of the large class every day, either alone or in conjunction with the lecture method. They can also he conducted as
homework assignments by students working individually or
together. The in-class exercises offer the opportunity for
direct interaction with the instructor and perhaps with :I
number of other students in the class.
Here are some exercises that can be used in the large class.
Many other appropriate exercises are described fully in Division Two's journal, Teaching of Psychology, in the several
teaching activities handbooks published by the American
Psychological Association, and in the instructor's manuals
that accompany introductory psychology textbooks.
Demonstrations constitute one kind of active learning,
but not all demonstrations qualify. For example, using a
student volunteer to wear prism goggles in front of your class
while engaging in selected motor tasks is an excellent active
learning experience for that student. Demonstrating discrimination learning by showing a rat in an operant chamber
to your class is a good active learning experience for the rat.
But netther demonstratlon provtdes any actlve ~ n v o l ~ e m e n t
for the rest of the class I am not argulng agdlnat the use ot
these demonstrattons, I am only notlng that they do not
constttute actlve learning.
The kinds of demonstratlons 1 have In mlnd requtre entlrc
class partlctpatton. Some demonstratlons are quite 51mple,
such as having the class watch you take t h e ~ p~cture
uith , I
flash camera and then asklng them to mantpulate the size ot
the afterimage they experience by projecting it on dltferent
surfaces withln the room, such as thelr desk top, their hantl,
or a d~stantwall. Emmert's lam can be milch more rne'ln
lngful In that context
In a lecture on depth perceptton, you can help student\
understand the binocular cue of convergence by h'ivlng
them fully extend one of their arms In front of thern, gl\e ,1
thumbs up slgn, and then stare at t h e ~ thumb
w ~ t hboth e\e\
as they brlng ~tslowly toward thelr nose, remlndlng them to
pay attentton to the muscle teniion they feel In t h e ~ reye\
Although these s~mpledemonstrations ;Ire not Inno
vative, they offer a nlce change ot pace from st,~ndardlec
tures They also allow students to experlencc the phe
nomena in a sltuatlon that allows the Instructor to re~ntorct
reading or lecture. These two examples ~llustr,~tc
(a) h o ~
s~mplesome actlve learning demonstratlons ,ire, (b) hc1\4
l~ttletlme some of them requlre, <ind (c) th,lt \ i o ~
know how to do them
Other demonstratlons are more compl~c,iteci,such '15 i
mnemontc system using interacting images I use such , I
demonstratlon to Illustrate the ease bith whlch nn,lni
mnemonic systems can he learned and used and to >hi)&tht
Importance of Imagery In memor) I wrlte rht, number\ I
through 12 on the chalkboard, one ,lt d tlme A\ I wrlte c,lcll
number, 1 give tt ~ t aasoc~ated
peg word 1 1s ,I uirnd, 2 I \ ,I
swan (looks like a swan), 3 is 4' three-leaf ~lovtlr 4 15 tola
legged tuble, 5 is a flue-[~otntedstui , b 1s an elellhait \ trunk tn(:
curled up posttton, 7 1s a flag, 8 is 'ln hourglm,, C, li\ ,i \ n ~ r ~ A l r ~ ~
ppe (laylng on its s ~ d e )10
, 15 ,I hall and hat, 1 1 is ,i t e n \ r r u ~ l l
portton of spaghetti, and 12 1s a L ~ I J L(hands
pollitlng tcl midntght). I leave those nutrlbers and words on the ho,ird w h ~ l ei
descr~behow students are to use tho3e nords to t ~ ~ rinter,lc
tlve Images to remember new materlal In ,I p,ir~~cul,lr
orde~ I
then tell students that I .Im golng to call out 12 new wi~~cis
'I random order, givlng each word
number Students ~Irt
told that these are the words the) are to remen~ber,inJ 1t.
able to recall later by number Thcn I begln. 6 1, \. olk5wagen
1 I 15 mountam, 2 is an~bltron,,lnJ so forth 11~11In:: t h ~ plrr
s 01
the exercise, student9 l~stenmil concentrate r t r ~i r e ~ t u n r
their mental Images wtthout taklng note4 i'ittc'r c , ~ l l ~ no ugt
the 12 new words, I erase the assoc~~ited
words i ) n the ho.irii
,lnd tell students to number ,i plece ot scratch p'iper tram 1 to
12 and wrlte down the words I just called out 4fter \ t ~ i d e ~ ~ r s
tln~shwrlrlng, I lead the class In ,i unison reclt,\tlon oi t i l t
word\. 1 say the number, and thel, say the \1.0111 l71c11 t c
\ponse IS ~mpress~ve
hec,lusc more rh,m 200 people s<t\ [lit
correct word in response to my numbel. I then
tor ,I slxm
of hands of how many got them '111 right, t y p ~ c ~ l lty ,~ tti~rd\
of the class respond5 Next I ,15k them to ~oluntet-rsome L I I
t h e ~ assoclatlon5,
rern~ndlngthem that t h ~ il,l\s
1, ,I ''f,irn~l\
show " One student iiescr~heshou \lit picrurccl 'in IICII
duckllng w ~ t h'in amhltion to hecome a he,rut~tui\\ban A I ~
other says hc p~ctureci ,In eleph,inr u ~ t h,i C'oll\s\b,ige~~
wrclpped up In ~ r trunh,
, ~ n dni,~nv~ti1dent5
110t1 t h e ~ lie,tti\
Teaching of Psychology
Another student says she pictured a Volkswagen whose
trunk looked like an elephant's trunk. T h e entire demonstration takes from 15 to 20 min, depending on how long I
let the student comments continue.
T o reinforce the text information on forgetting, I repeat
the recitation part of the demonstration several weeks later.
I ask students to remember the 12 words I called out to them,
and I begin by saying the numbers. Their responses are quite
different. T h e number of students responding is considerably
smaller than before, perhaps reduced by 75% or more. The
quieter response is a cacophony, produced by students saying
a number of different words (see Shimamura, 1984).
Again, many demonstrations like this take very little class
time, involve everyone in the class, prompt student comments, and require the instructor to do very little preparation or data analysis. You could collect the student responses
in the mnemonic demonstration, analyze the data sheets,
and report the results to the class at a later time. Yet, the recitation by students makes the point quite nicely and timely.
Many other good demonstrations require students to generate data. I use an aggression questionnaire intended as a
critical thinking exercise in the small groups (Benjamin,
1985), but it is easily adapted to the large class. The onepage questionnaire is given to the students in one class period and requires 3 min to complete. The questionnaires are
collected, the data analyzed, and the questionnaire and results given back to the students in the next class period,
setting the stage for a lecture and discussion of the data,
drawing heavily on student comments. Students always
seem more interested in their data than they are in hearing
about data collected on others. One-page questionnaires are
easily generated. For example, I use another one that asks
students questions about their sleep and dreaming. Discussion of the data from these questionnaires provides a good
supplement to lecture and probably increases students' motivation to learn.
Active learning techniques for large classes involve writing and discussion. In one format, the class is divided into
pairs of students to discuss a particular issue or to solve a
problem. For example, I might ask them to write an answer
to the following question, "Human infants cannot be tested
on the visual cliff until they are able to crawl, around 6
months of age, because movement off the runway is the
dependent variable. Can you think of another dependent
variable that could be used in human newborns to determine
whether they can perceive differences between the shallow
and deep sides?" After committing their thoughts to writing
and then spending 5 to 10 min engaged in dyadic discussion,
students can be asked to volunteer their proposed solutions.
This approach is a variant of what is known as a leurning cell,
which is a form of the student dyad in the classroom.
In this final section, I have not discussed several active
learning formats for large classes, including out-of-class exercises, interactive lectures, debates, and class simulations.
However, I have described some forms of active learning
that you might use in large classes.
In this article, I shared some personal philosophies and
observations about teaching large classes. I emphasized the
Vol. 18, No. 2, April 1991
importance of personalizing the course and stated my belief
that a large class does not fully exempt the instructor from
that responsibility. I stressed the importance of active learning. If you were not already a convert, I hope I convinced
you that active learning is possible in the large class. I hope I
have encouraged you to make active learning more prominent in your own classes, large or small.
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1. This article is adapted from a G. Stanley Hall Lecture presented
at the 1989 meeting of the American Psychological Assoc~;~.
tion, New Orleans, LA.
2. I thank Barbara F. Nodine, Jack R. Natlon, and Jeffry Simpson
for their help in preparing this article.
3. Requests for reprints should be bent to Ludy T . Benjamin, J r . .
Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College
Station, TX 77843.
Teaching Psychology in Large Classes: Research and
Personal Experience
James J. Jenkins
University of South Florida
The idea of instructing large classes frequently evokes negative
emotional responses. Data and personal experience demonstrate,
however, that instruction in large classes can be acceptable and
m y be superior to conventional methods of teaching the introductory course in psychology. Examples are gwen from experiences
with large classes at the University of Minnesota that illustrate
successes and failures in large classes.
I first taught Introductory Psychology in the fall of 1948,
to a class of about 500 students in the General College at the
University of Minnesota. W i t h only a n occasional year off, 1
have been teaching this course one, two, or three times a
year ever since. I have taught introductory courses with as
few as 10 honors students, and I have taught conventional
introductory courses in a n auditorium filled with 2,000 students. I have taught face-to-face, by television, and hy motion picture. 1 have taught via lecture (with and without
recitation sections), by discussion, and by experiential techniques. (I must add that my student ratings have ranged from
"master teacher" to "worst teacher I have ever had"; 6)rtunately, more of the former than the latter.
Most of my remarks deal with teaching the introductory
psychology course to large classes rather than with issues ot'
large classes in general. Still, I believe that some of my
Teaching of Psychology