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Getting To Grips With Large Groups

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Tricks of the Trade for Teaching II

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.664.1 - 10.664.12

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Paper Authors

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Chris Smaill University of Auckland

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Getting To Grips With Large Groups

Chris Smaill

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering The University of Auckland New Zealand


Small-group instruction is generally seen as preferable to large-group instruction. However, with funding constraints and decreasing staff-student ratios, large-group instruction is becoming increasingly prevalent in the tertiary sector. Class size significantly affects the mode of instruction chosen by instructors, with lectures being the preferred choice for large classes. Key problem areas for large-class lectures include: the passive approach usually adopted by students, attention spans typically of 15 minutes, student anonymity, lack of personal contact between instructor and students, the maintenance of classroom order, and the implementation of frequent and effective assessment coupled with prompt feedback. For large groups, lecturing and course organization require well-developed management skills on the part of the instructor. This paper is based on the premise that large-group lecturing is here to stay. Problems with this mode of instruction are discussed and some solutions are outlined.

Introduction: doing more with less

Worldwide, academics are being asked to do more with less. In the UK per-student funding in higher education decreased by over 50% in real terms from 1985 to 19901. One immediate result of such funding reduction is increased class sizes. 50 years ago in the UK the median lecture size was 19 while the average number of students in a discussion group was just 42. Numbers such as these are now a distant memory: in the University of Auckland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (DECE), class sizes are currently as large as 560 at year one, 250 at year two and 180 at year three.

Large classes such as these almost invariably lead to lecturing being chosen as the dominant mode of instruction. For example, in DECE, the year-one course entails for each student 36 hours of lectures, 11 hours of tutorials (group size over 30) and 6 hours of scheduled laboratory time. A year-two course involves 48 hours of lectures, no tutorials, and up to 6 hours of scheduled laboratory time. Furthermore, while the majority of year-one students attend lectures, under 50% attend tutorials on a regular basis. Laboratory attendance is compulsory. The inference is that students see lectures as the central part of the educational process. Clearly, with lectures playing such a central role, it is essential that instructors understand their nature well and can use the format effectively.

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

Smaill, C. (2005, June), Getting To Grips With Large Groups Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon.

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