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One day, our class began with spoons. As students filed into the lecture hall, the teaching assistants, offering no explanation, handed every fourth or fifth student some type of spoon. The spoons ranged widely in terms of age, style and production -- there were handmade wooden spoons, colonial-era silverware, early versions of mass-produced baby spoons and many more.

At 133 students, our class was large, and the university had assigned us a typical lecture room with stadium-style seating for the twice-weekly lectures. Students also attended weekly discussion sections in groups of 15 with one of the five teaching assistants for the course, so they had gotten to know their teaching assistant and section colleagues well.

The students settled into their seats, many of them now clutching spoons. As the rows were long, and the room had few aisles, it was difficult for them to move around or talk to more than a couple of other students. Nevertheless, familiar with the literature linking active learning techniques to increased understanding and retention, one of us -- Zachary, the course head -- was committed to regularly flipping his classroom.

He offered the day’s essential questions (“How can objects help us tell better stories about the past? How does historiography consist of different stories about the past?”) and then directed students to form five-person groups and describe, interpret and analyze a spoon as a historical primary source. After rereading “A Guide To Looking,” written by staff at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, the groups began to hypothesize about the spoon’s material, size, decoration, inscription, wear, use and value. And from those observations, they began to use historical thinking to draw conclusions about the time period from which their particular spoon came.

This activity took place last fall in our experimental course in history methods, aimed at giving students with little experience in reading, writing and doing history both an understanding of the field and the mastery of skills applicable to other courses and to their future professional lives. We incorporated frequent active learning exercises into our lecture meetings, as has become increasingly common even in large courses. In this essay, the two of us -- Zachary and one of the teaching assistants, Marion -- offer our reflections about our challenges and our successes in flipping our classroom in a large lecture hall.

Rethinking the Role of the TA

Traditional lecture is, once again, out of style. There’s evidence that lecture has been a multimedia, somewhat interactive process since the early modern period, and today, many instructors are again attempting to bring more active learning into the lecture hall. Instructors like Kelly Hogan at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are committed not simply to more active learning in lecture but also to more inclusive learning. Hogan uses guided reading questions and outlines with fill-in-the blanks for lecture and conducts real-time digital polling. Similarly, University of Alabama professor Claire Major uses three kinds of techniques -- which she calls bookends, overlays and interleaves -- to do what she calls interactive lecture.

What we think might allow these more interactive lectures to be even more effective is for lecturers to take advantage of the other professional teachers in the lecture hall: the teaching assistants.

The tactile nature of the spoon activity rendered it particularly accessible to students, and they tackled the interpretation of a material object with enthusiasm. But the purposeful buzz in the room was not in itself what rendered this activity successful. As Robert Talbert, author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, has noted, while well-designed active learning experiences are essential to the successful flipped classroom, designing an activity and getting students to engage in it isn’t enough. Equally important is ongoing instructor guidance and supervision during the activity, ensuring high-quality interactions between that person and the students and among the students themselves.

It is unlikely that student groups working on their own would have achieved the learning objective of understanding how historians use primary sources to understand cultural transitions and structural changes over time. And even moving rapidly through the lecture hall, Zachary on his own would only have been able to reach a few of the 27 groups to offer them guidance. After a few minutes, however, dozens of students were engaged in the exercise, yet many of the groups struggled to deepen their analyses; they were able to describe what they saw but had difficulty formulating a historical argument based on their observations.

In most lecture classes, students sit wherever they like. They may have a friend or two near them, but the other students might be strangers to them. The instructors decided early on in the semester to leverage the social networks and familiarity of the discussion section in the lecture part of the class. After drop-add was over, Zachary put up a PowerPoint slide with a seating chart and directed students to sit with their 15-person discussion sections for every lecture. When the students were given an active learning exercise, smaller learning groups formed within these discussion section groups where the students already knew each other. The teaching assistants sat with their sections, and each time the lecture had an active learning component, they circulated among their small groups, asking and answering questions.

On the spoon day, the teaching assistants moved from group to group, pushing students to consider questions like “How would a person have acquired this spoon? How many people would have owned such a spoon? How was this spoon made, who made it and what characterized the lives of the makers?” In that way, the teaching team created structured conditions for students not only to begin their inquiry on their own (“What is this thing, what does it look and feel like, and who do I think might have used it?”), but then also to develop their inquiry under the guidance of a teacher who pushed them to consider the complex cultural and economic implications of material objects.

Such structured inquiry is common in small seminars, but it is much more difficult to achieve in a large lecture with one instructor. The crucial component here was the role of the teaching assistants -- typically confined to section teaching -- in taking on an assertive role during the “lecture,” normally the sacrosanct province of the course head. Rethinking the role of the teaching assistants, enforcing seating assignments that supported the efficacy of those teachers and taking a team approach transformed the lecture into something approximating a seminar environment. The TAs were also able, in real time, to give the Zachary as the course head quick feedback about the ideas their students were generating or the challenges they were having.

Some Continuing Challenges

All this said, we have found that structural obstacles to active learning in a large lecture -- such as fixed seating arrangements and a large student-to-professor ratio -- are significant. Getting up and squeezing past other students to regroup can be an awkward and time-intensive endeavor. It requires specific instructions about where and how to physically locate, as well as several teachers prodding and coaching students along. The sheer number of students also makes it difficult to monitor group work and ensure that students are meeting expectations. And the red-hot presence of a phone in every student’s pocket is a particular obstacle to focused group work in a crowded lecture hall with the professor across the room. Even the most well-constructed active learning exercise can be derailed by these obstacles.

Indeed, even when we thought we had anticipated such challenges, we sometimes struggled to make an active learning exercise work. When learning exercises were more open-ended or complex than the spoon activity, it was harder.

Such challenges expose the false assumption that simply putting students in groups with some good questions or tasks will get them to interact successfully. Nor is it realistic to suggest that professors obtain an appropriately sized room with a better setup for group work, as most large halls are configured for lecture. Finally, we recognize that having TAs join in the teaching in lecture isn’t possible at all institutions: some of our colleagues are lecturing to 133 students and don’t have any teaching assistants to help out with active learning.

But as a step forward, despite the challenges, we would judge our spoon lecture and other attempts at active learning successful experiments in the social construction of knowledge. Not only was the course head not the sage on the stage, but the students also discussed material and had to justify how they thought about it. One student said, “The small discussions that we have with neighbors during lecture help us retain information well and strengthen the effect of lectures.”

Most students who commented on this think-pair-share approach during the lectures were positive. One said that the “breaks from lecture for in-class discussion and personal reflection [were] to keep us on topic, but consider the material in a different way.” The same student, though, not realizing that elementary school teachers can be better-trained pedagogues than college instructors, also noted that “at times this class reminded me of my fourth-grade social studies class, but that’s only to say the information was straightforward.”

Despite some of the limitations, we would recommend this method to other instructors. It breaks up the monotony -- and, more to the point, the passivity for the students -- of a lecture course. This method also makes excellent use of the TAs’ expertise, rather than rendering them mere spectators. With no technology required, it makes active learning an everyday lecture experience: it radically decenters the course head as the only font of knowledge. Students might not have chosen this approach, but they certainly didn’t seem to dislike it, judging from the anonymous evaluations.

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