A manifesto for learning and teaching in large classes from the Experienced Teachers’ Network

iStock [Henrik500]
iStock [Henrik500]
 The experienced Teachers’ Network launched in 2016 with the aim of providing a discussion space for experienced teachers around the University. The network is currently led by Richard Blythe (School of Physics and Astronomy), Chris Perkins (School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures) and Velda McCune (Institute for Academic Development). We wanted particularly to engage people who haven’t participated in formal continuing professional development for learning and teaching recently as they’ve been busy learning from their colleagues and students. The Network meets once each semester to discuss topics of interest to members and to develop ideas to influence practice on learning and teaching. Arising from our first few meetings we have developed a “manifesto for excellent learning and teaching in large classes”.

Why we need a manifesto

Why do we need a manifesto for excellent learning and teaching in large classes, and why now? A simple answer would be that large classes are now part and parcel of university life. But this answer begs the question. So what? Can’t students just learn the way they have always done? And can’t we just use our time-honoured tool-box of lectures and tutorials? So again, why a manifesto, and why now?

First, we see large class sizes as not simply a quantitative question of doing the same but more. Instead, large classes represent a qualitative change in styles of learning and teaching in the university. In other words, large classes demand new pedagogies to maintain excellent learning and teaching experiences.

Second, step changes in information technology – lecture recording, online courses, MOOCS – have made possible class sizes that simply wouldn’t have been thinkable even five years ago. Furthermore, outreach and widening participation efforts are bringing to the university new students with very different experiences of education. And the economics of scale cannot be ignored: in a tough higher education sector large classes might offer an efficient way of catering for bigger cohorts.

This last point is likely to raise some eyebrows. And so it should. There is a danger that in embracing bigger class sizes, we sacrifice the quality – the excellence – of the learning and teaching experience.

This is where the manifesto comes in. The principles below offer a framework for approaching large classes that puts excellence front and centre. In one sense the principles are lines in the sand. But in another, they combine to offer a positive vision of what excellent learning and teaching in large classes can be, and suggests how we can get there.

The last point to make is that this manifesto isn’t the end of the discussion. It is just the start. And we hope this manifesto helps facilitate this discussion in all its complicated and contentious glory.

Manifesto for an excellent learning and teaching experiences in large classes 

  • Excellent learning takes place in classes that have a sense of community where staff and students are partners in teaching and learning.
  • Taking partnership seriously means recognising that excellent learning and teaching is dialogic and interactive, no matter how many participants there are.
  • Productive learning and teaching partnerships happen in teaching spaces that are designed for interaction and social spaces which contribute to community building.
  • Successful assessment and feedback practices are negotiated among staff and students in local contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
  • Large diverse classes create a non-linear increase in complexity and we value the teachers who excel in managing these demands.
  • Large class learning and teaching can be delivered by well-supported and well-trained undergraduates and postgraduates working in partnership with established academic staff.
  • Universities support excellent teachers throughout their career from graduate teaching assistant positions through to professorships.

Next steps:

If you would like to join the mailing list for the network please email rosie.bree@ed.ac.uk.

What do you think of the manifesto? How do you approach large class teaching? You can comment below, or get in touch to contribute a blog post of your own.

Richard Blythe

Dr Richard Blythe is a Reader in the School of Physics and Astronomy. In his research he aims to understand the statistical properties of complex interacting systems that are driven out of equilibrium. Applications include the clustering of swimming bacteria and the spread of social behaviour through a population. Having experimented with a variety of teaching and assessment methodologies in his undergraduate classes, Richard co-founded the Experienced Teacher Network to exchange experiences and generate new thinking in university teaching.

Velda McCune

Dr Velda McCune is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director at the Institute for Academic Development. Her team provide University-wide support for teachers, support staff and students in relation to learning and teaching. Velda’s research focuses on students’ experiences and perceptions of learning in higher education and academics’ development as teachers.

Chris Perkins

Dr Chris Perkins is Senior Lecturer in Japanese and Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. His research focuses on questions related to media, memory and modern Japanese history. Chris is also interested in how cultures within academic disciplines shape learning and teaching practice.

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