Improving Learning in Large Lectures

Help Center Profiles of Technology Use Improving Learning in Large Lectures
Lisa Coutu


Lisa Coutu
Speech Communication
University of Washington, Seattle Campus



Lisa Coutu faced a typical problem: as the instructor for Speech 102, "Speech: the Individual and Society," she wanted to actively engage students with the class material. However, enrollment in Speech 102 ranges from 240 to 280 students, and Coutu typically has only one TA, making traditional discussion sessions impossible. Exams for this class focus on defining, explaining, and applying course concepts; in the past, students often had difficulty with the tests because they had so little practice in applying the concepts. In response to this problem, Coutu began strategizing as to how to encourage active learning in this challenging setting.

In the spring of 2000, Coutu applied for a grant from the Office of Undergraduate Education to improve learning in large classes. The grant provided two additional TAs and a stipend to help implement a technology component to Speech 102. Coutu felt that an online component to this class could foster more active learning; in particular, she hoped to give students an opportunity to practice with class topics both individually and collaboratively. Coutu thought that encouraging students to use the Web to apply concepts learned in class would shift the responsibility for learning onto the students and would make the students' learning experiences more active.

Meeting Challenges with Technology

In the old format, Speech 102 met five days a week for lecture. The restructured Speech 102 meets four days a week, and students are expected to use the extra time to work with class material outside of
"I didn't get into this for the technology, I got into it for the learning."
class. Coutu uses Catalyst's WebQ Tool to encourage students to practice applying class topics on their own. She has designed seven in-depth exercises for students, structured to actively engage students in the course materials. The WebQ exercises focus on defining, explaining, and applying concepts introduced in class that week. Students are required to complete five of the seven WebQs. The exercises are written as essay questions (a new use for this Catalyst tool!), and are graded qualitatively. Coutu posts a sample model response after the WebQs have been turned in.

Coutu feels that the WebQ exercises have been a great tool—students learn early in the quarter where their weaknesses are, and so have time to improve their work. She reports that the students complain that the WebQ exercises are "hard," but that they also appreciate that the exercises help them learn.

Coutu also uses Catalyst's EPost threaded discussion tool to create what she calls "virtual quiz sections". Small groups of 35 to 40 students converse in online, guided, asynchronous discussions on the previous week's course content. Coutu provided detailed requirements for EPost participation at the beginning of the quarter, and also provides topics for each discussion section. The EPost discussion topics, unlike the WebQ's, deal with course material from the previous week, so that students "already have some concept" down, and can think about the topic in a more applied way.

Coutu has been extremely impressed with the quality of the EPost discussions thus far. "They are stunning," she says. "They [the students] are really making an effort to link with each other, and to learn from each other." Participation in the EPost discussions is graded credit/no credit; in the first week, Coutu and her TAs contacted any student whose performance was "on the edge," providing suggestions for improvement. In general, however, Coutu reports that the quality of student discussions has been quite high.

Supporting Class Technology

So far, students seem to appreciate the new Speech 102. The only negative response to the technology component of the class has been with the standard glitches and start-up problems. A few students have difficulty with access, but Coutu has arranged the projects so they can do the work while on campus. Additionally, getting this project started has required a large time investment on the part of the instructors. Coutu estimates that she's spending about 40 hours a week on the class right now, and all four TAs have been fully extended as well. However, Coutu points out, the class is brand new, and so extra work is to be expected. She anticipates that she will be able to accomplish the same tasks with fewer TAs when the class is taught next winter.

Part of Coutu's successful strategy has been making use of campus resources. Coutu has worked closely with the department staff of Speech Communication and with consultants at the CTLT to improve learning in Speech 102. Her focus, however, will always be on pedagogy rather than on technological tricks, so knowing where to get technological support has been important. "I'm not a huge technology person," Coutu says. "I didn't get into this for the technology, I got into it for the learning."


by Emily Jones, October 2000

Please note: EPost has been replaced by GoPost, which offers expanded features to support online discussion and collaboration.

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