Engaging large groups – top tips from the student perspective

As thoughts turn to planning for the new semester one question regularly appearing is how to engage and personalise learning when teaching large groups. There is no shortage of very usable, practical advice from expert voices in learning and teaching. What interested me as well was hearing from the often unsung experts – those informed individuals at the ‘sharp end’ – our students.


Their views add insight to the other experts like Graham Gibbs, Phil Race and others whose work is invaluable. I talked to 40 students from different programmes at different levels in two different institutions to discover what they liked and would improve in large class teaching and learning.

Here are their top tips to promote deeper engagement: deep engagement

1. Don’t throw students in at the deep end… Please introduce yourself – demonstrate respect. Say who you are and outline your area of expertise. This can be in a pre-sessional email or blog post linking to a webpage/blog/profile or research. Share a relevant piece of your research and one from someone else, perhaps an opposing viewpoint for students to read before you meet them. Ask students to consider set questions when reading these so you are seen as there to advance their knowledge – not to intimidate. Give them the background the Internet cannot –  how you approached writing that paper, how you researched it, discovered your findings and how all of this connected to the work you did as a student of their level.
2. Make pre-reading accessible (physically and cognitively).. (a) link it to a quiz or poll early in the next taught session (b) relate the reading to the session it precedes (c) relate the reading to assignments (d) provide good reading notes – how to read, what to look for, questions to answer hoops and books(e) make the reading manageable – start small and build but be aware that students have a life so do check the time these things take (f) consider offering some material and getting students to use a discussion board/online forum to share what they find of opposing viewpoints, relevant media clips etc. Each person can be told what type of material they need to contribute. (g) if few have done the reading one week don’t go over it – that undermines the work of those who did it and sets the expectation that it isn’t necessary to do preparation.

3. Make content and questions relevant to students’ lives, expectations, futures and the real world.

4. Be incomplete – incomplete slides (gapped slides) incomplete lecture notes or diagrams mean something to engage with – missing axes/ unlabelled/ missing data in tables/ list points for completion/ partially complete calculations.Leave gaps in pre-work which can only be completed by independent work or reading.

5. Encourage questions – put questions on the pre work, on handouts.

In the final question10 minutes of a session ask students in five minutes to review their notes, highlight
question areas whilst you move around looking for common areas of confusion. Answer these in the last 5 minutes by a pair-and-share or formed-four response together with a group chosen at random to give the final answer.

The one thing all of these tips have in common? Engagement, participation and a sense that students need to be there to participate in their learning. Not being there means they can miss out.

Attitude is something students talked about too – lecturers’ attitudes to their students. Those who respect them as partners in learning, setting  clear but high expectations with structured support to achieve them are those most appreciated. aqttitudeAll images are the author’s own.

Assessment – fit for purpose in today’s HE?

The issues of assessment loom large for not only students in higher education but for staff too, and were the focus of a Higher Education Academy conference run with the University of Plymouth this week (24 Nov 2015).

Recognising that our assessments are shaped by our aims, we need to be clear what it is we are doing in higher education. Are we training –for a future in research, in academia, in industry, a profession? Are we educating – and what does that mean?

How we assess is fundamental to how we teach, how our students learn and what type of graduates they are able to become. David Boud (1995) said “Students can escape bad teaching but they can’t escape bad assessment.”

It is always worth us questioning if our assessments are allowing our students to really achieve, or whether they might be unconsciously restricted by our own limitations as assessment-setting tutors.  The Quality Assurance Agency documents for Scotland say student outcomes and knowledge should not be bounded by the knowledge of the tutor. Can we teach and assess in a way that frees our student imaginations? These are after all tomorrow’s researchers, academics, industrialists and professionals with whom we are working.

Several professional bodies were at this conference and were instantly appealed to by academics seeking to justify the use of examinations as a valid form of assessment.  An excellent response came from the Institute of Physics who accredit undergraduate degrees. They said whilst they require a written project and always ask what form of assessments institutions are using, they welcome and seek innovative teaching and assessment to develop different knowledge and skills in tomorrow’s physicists.

Professor Pauline Kneale, the Pro-Vice Chancellor Teaching and Learning and Director of the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory said professional bodies seeking to dictate specific forms of assessment could find themselves facing challenges under equality legislation. She said the need for HE assessment to be inclusive and fair for all students often excluded exams.


Developing assessment to support learning, innovation, excitement and inspire students to achieve… it sounds a very obvious goal to me. How might we achieve this, and how could, indeed would we recognise success?

Some ideas came out of the conference, many already in practice:

  • Planning assessments across a programme to develop maximum skills and knowledge
  • Excellent preparation for assessment types so this forms a crucial part of the learning process
  • Enabling choices of assessment with question or method options
  • Working with students, alumni and/or employers to develop authentic assessment
  • Peer and self-assessment (which can be so ably supported here at Loughborough by WebPA)
  • Using the NUS assessment and feedback benchmark toolkit

It is always worth remembering that quality not quantity should be what earns a Higher Education degree. Or perhaps in more prosaic terms thinking about assessment, you never fatten a pig by just weighing it!

Setting the right expectations from the start

Facebook currently shows excited students posing in their new halls and houses across the country, posted by them or misty-eyed parents.

In the next weeks they will begin the courses, or programmes of study which drew them to the institutions where they are studying.

As academics discovering and developing the expectations of each member of this student posse, whether new or returning, is invaluable. Some will have clear-cut expectations – influenced by open days (sometimes not actually the open days at the institution where they find themselves), parental, schools, peers, or the internet. Others will not know what to expect but this doesn’t make them easily engaged or pleased!

Some expectations are realistic – others are far from the reality of HE today.

Glimpses (totally unscientific) across Twitter, Facebook and other social media of what students are saying give a little insight into expectations and thoughts. I’ve put some I’ve seen into groupings of years. Maybe their comments will give you, as they gave me, pause for thought in setting the academic expectations which will support our students and us…

Awesome experience starts here

Dad says the tutorials are the best but toughest bits, being quizzed by experts every week. Glad the buildings are better at my uni than where he was!

Everyone has got much higher results than I did and they’re really bright

The first year doesn’t count which is good.

Bit scared to be honest but the lecturers here are brilliant and I know I’m going to learn everything I need to get a fantastic job. It’s scary to think I’ve only got 3 years to do that though!

Anyone else got a timetable with nothing on two days and not that many hours on the three I am in – didn’t know it was going to be this relaxed at uni.

Second years:

Everyone says it’s going to be really tough, that work ramps up this year and I found last year a challenge so I guess that’s the end of a social life.

It’s sooo good to be back – fab party house this year which is great.

Anyone who was a second year last year – how much for your books/notes?

Final year:

Scary. This is it. This time next year I’ll have graduated.

My internship has taught me more than the last two years, but I have to go back to get that piece of paper and I’m not going to waste my last few months at uni.

Terror – this is our last year – how did that happen? I’m not ready for it!

Anyone know how much it costs to do a Masters? Don’t want this to be my last year at uni.

Anyone already started thinking about their dissertation? Do we have to stick with what we submitted as an idea last year? I want to change it all.

Food for thought?

Spurs to action?  

Who’s for hibernating in a darkened room or alternatively setting our own approach to mutuality in learning from day 1 (and repeating it on days 2,3,4, etc.?

It seems easier to set expectations at the start than to change habits or ingrained assumptions.






Putting students in charge

Giving students, those individuals in whom we (cl)aim to be developing critical thinking, the task of developing effective student engagement seems an obvious solution.

The experience of doing this at the University of Bedfordshire has now been published as a joint case study paper in SEEJ, Sheffield Hallam’s journal of student engagement and experience. Involve me and I learn can be found here

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It would be good to hear of similar projects running elsewhere – where the future generation are taking the lead. What are the issues, the concerns, the outcomes and the impact… Is engagement which is student-led, student-developed particularly in terms of academic engagement, more or less effective from the student and staff perspectives?


You said we did or we said and TOGETHER we did?


What do learners in HE say when asked what they would do to improve their learning experience? Often that they know how to improve things.

Learning is a partnership. It involves mutual engagement, mutual responsibilities, mutual effort in order to achieve success. Partnerships are rarely equal but the mutuality is essential.

The ‘You said’ ‘We did’ implies to some that it is the responsibility of one group to highlight issues whilst another group has the role of resolving those issues. This is certainly true within the customer service model, but runs the risk of tainting the value of academic learning partnerships.

Students who engage and get involved in not only identifying issues impeding learning but also resolving them add value to their own and the learning of others, student colleagues and staff alike. They recognise their perspective can often add to the efficacy of the resulting solution as well as developing the depth of the academic/student relationship.

Different approaches suited to institutional ethos and requirements are underway across HEIs. Many such initiatives demand the active involvement of students in educating others. Students involved enthuse about the challenges and the rewards of these schemes.

Some intiiatives have been supported by HE staff and students who belong to the RAISE network  (Researching,Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement),  Think BIG is running at Bedfordshire, led by the Students’ Union for example and there are the inspirational Southampton University’s Digichamps.

Please let me know of other schemes where students are leading the initiative to enhance learning and teaching.

Coping with late students

There have been some alarming Tweets recently about draconian approaches to lateness. The £9k fees issue has also potentially changed the dynamic – I now hear of staff saying “Students have confronted me when I challenge them for being late by saying ‘I pay £9grand for this, you can’t exclude me.'”

A basic principle well known to all parents of young children applies here to dealing with disruptive students.

At all costs, avoid getting into a confrontation which will take up too much time, add to the stress levels of all concerned and which you cannot win without losing face!

Some simple solutions are worth trying – set clear expectations from the beginning so everyone know WHAT is expected and WHY. If you can’t come crashing in late that’s because it has the potential to disrupt the learning of others. If you are late sidling in very quietly and silently acknowledging the lecturer doesn’t usually upset anyone.

One solution is to keep the row of seats just near the door empty for latecomers and flag this up to everyone both in person and via your virtual learning environment or other communication tool. Latecomers should take these seats as quietly and quickly as possible and it also allows you to identify who was late so you can catch them at the end of the sessions to make sure they know how to find the material they may have missed.

Another route is to start with assessment/revision/exam advice – tends to focus the minds of the tardy if they know this is what you are doing.

If you have students out on work experience or practice then use the start of the session to give them their voice about what they’ve learned or experienced in the week – this peer learning is hugely valuable to students.

Starting sessions with student-led revision of the previous week, or intervening reading is helpful but can lead to some avoiding the start of the session if they haven’t read or taken notes… so moving this element around within the session in terms of timing can avoid deliberate late-coming.

Please share your thoughts, experiences and solutions.

Top tips for HE…


Top tips for HE tutors (new and old) from former and current students with huge thanks for all the contributions.

  1. Be audible and look like you want to be here
  2. Inspire us with your passion and enthusiasm
  3. Explain your background and tell us why you’re here with us
  4. Challenge us – give us goals (see also number 5)
  5. Be clear what you want from us, and what you hope for from us (not always the same thing!)
  6. Be approachable
  7. Enthuse and encourage
  8. Remember we’re probably looking for guidance
  9. For new staff – remember we’re probably as scared as you are!
  10. Please smile…