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Teaching Toolbox

Lecturing is not the only way to teach. You might try experimenting with different methods, particularly when you have a small class.

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

lthough professors cite large class size as the reason for lecturing, rather than attempting active learning methods, they still tend to lecture even when they have a small class. Although some of these methods may not be appropriate for courses required as prerequisites because they require giving up some control over the content coverage, the teacher still retains responsibility for assessment and quality control. Here are a number of alternative teaching styles that work well with small classes:

Modified Oxford-style tutoring. Divide the class into pairs, set the syllabus and course schedule, and meet individually on a weekly basis with each pair. Have one student present the material while the other comments and criticizes. Your role is to dig deeper and control future directions through the reading assignments. With 10-12 students, the time commitment is about the same as for a lecture class, but students receive more personal attention and probably work harder than in lecture classes.

Case studies, guided design, and Problem Based Learning (PBL). These related techniques focus on "real world" problems. Case studies present a problem and the solution developed by a practitioner. Capstone design courses use them so students can apply the material they have learned in other courses. The emphasis is on teamwork, solving open-ended problems, and communication. Guided design leads students through the solution of a case study. After each step, written feedback determines what the students do next. The written feedback in small classes can be replaced or supplemented with personalized oral feedback. In the first case study, guided design helps students learn how to solve open-ended problems as a team. PBL also focuses on realistic problems, but differs since the students are expected to learn the material while solving the problem. The groups develop a list of topics they must learn in order to find the solution. Since they can see the reason for learning the material, students are usually highly motivated to learn.

Super PBL. In super PBL, the most time-consuming step, problem definition, is delegated to the students with appropriate limits—and advice. In our version, each student group writes a professional quality textbook chapter including examples, homework, and homework solutions on a topic they select from a long list of advanced topics not normally included in core courses. There are no tests and very few lectures. Most class periods are dedicated to meetings with individual groups to check on progress. A major role for the professor involves motivating and encouraging students.

Student-run seminars. In the teacher-controlled version, you select the content and control the evaluation procedure. Although all students read and discuss the assigned paper, one student—the discussion leader—has the responsibility of carefully checking the paper for errors and reading the references to put the paper in context. Homework and tests can be assigned just like in a standard class. In the student-controlled version, the students pick topics, resources, and teaching methods while the teacher negotiates assessment methods, (for example, a test with student-constructed problems) and performs quality control. Meet with the students before they teach each topic to go over their material and afterwards to provide feedback.

If you have been avoiding active learning methods but occasionally teach small classes, your bluff has been called. Turn these courses into active learning experiences.


Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at
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