Planning for Active Learning in Large Classes

Active learning is “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes” (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 2). Examples include team debates, think-pair-share, team-based learning, and using clickers or other technology to provide opportunities for discussion (for more on active learning, see our Active Learning Tip Sheet).

Photo taken at the back of a 200-seat lecture hall looking toward the front white board.
One of Waterloo’s large classrooms

But what happens when there are 300 students in your classroom? Many of these techniques scale to larger settings although they require additional planning. To help with designing and running these activities, I think about four design elements. For each element, I ask myself a set of questions to help plan the activity.

Alignment: How does the activity support my course outcomes?

  • How does this activity relate to what I am trying to achieve: in this class; in this topic module; and in this course?
  • What is the purpose of the activity? (Examples: student engagement in lectures, formative feedback for students and/or the instructor, summative assessment for students)
  • How does this activity relate to the intended outcomes of the course?
  • Is this activity part of a larger activity? (Example: small group activity related to an on-going case study in the course)

Context: What factors will influence the activity’s design?

  • Does the space (e.g., classroom, online) I am using work? What changes might be needed?
  • How many students do I have? How many TAs?
  • Who else should be involved in this activity? (Example: In a multi-instructor course, should this be something all instructors do or just your section?)
  • What are my students’ expectations of the course? How might they react to this activity?

Roles: What are the various tasks that need to happen to complete the activity successfully?

  • What is my role in this activity? How comfortable am I with that role?
  • What are my expectations of the students during the activity?
  • Who will run this activity?
  • What do people (students, instructors, others) need to do before, during, and after the activity?
  • How do I manage the activity? (Example: In a think-pair-share with 300 students, how will you signal it is time to end the share part?)

Support: What resources are needed and what is available?

  • Can I run this activity on my own?
  • If I need others’ support, what will they do? Do their skills match the need? (Example: Do you need TAs at class to support group conversations? If so, do you need to provide some training related to moderating a discussion?)
  • How could technology support or hinder this activity?
  • Who could help me with the design, implementation and/or debriefing of the activity?
  • If I identify a resource gap, how do I get extra resources?

When I started teaching at Waterloo, my first classroom was DC 1350, a lecture hall that seats about 250 people. Having previously taught in the college sector with small classes of 20-50 students, I found that first lecture overwhelming. Some of my tried-and-true teaching strategies weren’t working. Eventually, I found one that worked. I called it a “brain break” and I asked students to chat for a minute or two part way through the lecture. They could talk about the course or not. I simply wanted them to have a little time to think about what they had been learning for the past 20 minutes. It also gave me a chance to gauge how students were doing as I roamed around the class catching snippets of their conversations.

If you are new to active learning in large classes, identify just a couple of activities that you want to try.  If you are looking for ideas, check out Collaborative Learning Techniques by Elizabeth Barkley, Clair Major and Patricia Cross (2014).  They list several activities that scale well to large class settings (see Exhibit Intro 3.3 on page 148). Another great resource is Silberman (1996), which shares 101 active learning strategies. A personal favourite is “Think-Pair-Share” – students think about a problem/question/scenario and jot down their answers, then they turn to a neighbour, form a pair and discuss their responses, finally, a few of the pairs share their ideas with the class. It works well in all class sizes, although you definitely need a good method to bring the pairs’ conversations to an end!


Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A Handbook for college faculty (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. American Society for Quality Higher Education Brief, 2(4), August.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Veronica Brown

Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

More Posts - Website

From crisis to crisis: teaching in challenging times

A stressed out figure with head on desk surrounded by books
Bonhomme Stressed

I don’t know if it’s some kind of confirmation bias as I think about all the people around me, but this past term has seemed much more stressful for many staff, faculty, and students on campus. Including me! Burnout among students and instructors seems more prevalent than in prior terms.

I suspect that it may have something to do with uncertainties and the erosion of rights on every front as we all live through the (very real) simulacrum that is the 45th U.S. President right now, coupled with the ways in which media outlets and social media amplify certain kinds of story.

There are things that happen in the world over which we have no control, but that are part of an increasingly invasive news cycle. Even the weather network seems in constant panic mode with “Alerts” and “Special Statements” that, when opened, say little more than that typical seasonal weather is about to happen.

In the face of events that make the news ticker and get amplified by friends and family, it is often difficult to know what and what not to do in the classroom. Faculty have expressed to me a deep sense of care about how they themselves, and how their students, can best handle daily news of crises. One of the most cited web-based resources out there is a Vanderbilt University guide called Teaching in Times of Crisis. Originally written in 2001, after 9-11, it was updated by Nancy Chick in 2013.

The gist of this well-researched piece is that we should say *something* about a crisis event in class, but we should say it while also referring students (and ourselves I think!) to available resources. I strongly encourage people to spend some time reading this piece; it’s helped a lot of us to address things head-on in classes rather than ignoring the “elephant in the room.” These crises may be local or global — everything from bombings to stories about sexual assault, from school shootings to the removal of same-sex marriage rights.

I wonder, too, whether this is something that is mainly a question for people in social science, environmental or health studies, or arts disciplines, or whether colleagues teaching large first year classes in, say, Engineering or Physics or Math also think about this stuff? In my experience, yes, but it’s not as directly relevant to the topic of the week (as it may well be in my Women’s Studies first-year lecture).


As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

More Posts - Website

Teaching teaching to (future) teachers – Joseph Buscemi


Having an opportunity to reflect on my brief time with CTE is a most welcomed development. Not only for those interested in CTE, but for myself, this chance to pause and consider all that has transpired within my introductory entry into the world of CTE has been, quite frankly, remarkable. I’ve only just wrapped up my first term as a GID (Graduate Instructional Developer), though the wealth of experiences makes it feel as though I’ve been here much longer (and I mean that in the best way possible). Firstly, I suppose a bit of preamble is in order before we get ahead of ourselves… Continue reading Teaching teaching to (future) teachers – Joseph Buscemi

Advanced Assessment Considerations

We spend a fair bit of time in the CTE talking about assessment. Whether it be in workshops, one-on-one consultations about teaching, curriculum meetings, teaching observations, or just in passing conversation among colleagues. In these instances, discussion often focuses on the function of the assessment – is it being used for diagnostic (to ascertain prior knowledge), formative (to provide feedback and improve performance during the learning process), or summative (to evaluate the learner’s knowledge, skills, or values) purposes. Discussion of course revolves around the type of assessment being used, as well as questions regarding grading, but there are aspects of assessment that go beyond this and begin to explore the role of the student in the assessment process.1197947341_89d0ff8676_z

When thinking about assessment and how we position it in our teaching, it can be helpful to think about it conceptually while considering what purpose we as instructors assign to it. To do so, we might turn to three approaches to assessment: assessment of learning, assessment for learning, and assessment as learning.

Assessment of learning suggests that assessment is being done for the primary purpose of determining what students have learnt in the class; it is typically done in a summative manner so that students can receive a grade.

Assessment for learning views assessment more as a process, whereby students learn from the assessment; feedback is of great importance as it assists the student in the learning process.

Assessment as learning takes this even further, situating the student him- or herself as an assessor and therefore takes greater responsibility in the learning and assessment process.

None of these approaches to assessment are inherently better than the other, but I would encourage you to reflect on your assessments from a different perspective, adapting what I call Advanced Assessment Considerations. These considerations are intended to allow you to reflect and evaluate your assessment during the design, facilitation, and grading & feedback stages. They do not suggest distinct or varied methods of assessment, but rather, attempt to provide options as to how to modify an existing assessment to make it even better. And by better, I mean better for the students – assessment should motivate and empower students to demonstrate what they have learnt, and the more we can have students become invested in the assessment process, the more meaningful it will be to them.

So what are these advanced assessment considerations? I’ll run through each briefly, providing some initial insight into what each consideration entails and leave you with some questions to consider.

Design considerations apply to how the assessment itself is constructed before the students begin to actively work on the assessment. They are intended to provide learners with agency to be contributors to the assessment and determine what their role will be in the assessment.

To incorporate these into our assessments, we should look at things such as:

  • Student choice
    • Develop student responsibility for learning with controlled options for assessment; students can choose the type of assessment they feel most suits their learning needs, but must reflect on why they chose it/didn’t choose others (Weimer, 2011)
  • Low-stakes and high-stakes assessments
    • Implement a variety of low-stakes and high-stakes assessments that allow for students to build confidence and motivation and alleviate stress or anxiety; create a culture of routine assessment, and don’t be afraid to allow strategies (such as cheat sheets or open-book resources) to alleviate the stress of high-stakes assessments such as exams; good students do well, and poor students do poorly, regardless of the exam type (Gharib & Phillips, 2013)

Facilitation considerations apply to the process whereby students complete the assessment, and the ways in which the instructor can help manage this process. They are intended to ensure that assessments are structured logistically and rationally so as to promote student learning and alleviate difficulties that are external to the objectives of the assignment.

These can be implemented when considering the process underlying the assessment by thinking about aspects such as:

  • Spacing effect
    • Ensure sufficient space between assessments so as to continually reinforce understanding before information is forgotten; the repetition of course content and the process of retrieving content as students begin to forget it helps to reinforce and solidify understanding (Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted & Rohrer, 2006; Kornell, Castel, Eich & Bjork, 2010)
  • Testing effect
    • Ensure that formative assessment in course matches type of summative assessment; students learn better by testing course content as opposed to simply studying from a textbook, and they learn especially well if testing is accompanied by some form of feedback (Agarwal et al., 2007)

Finally, grading & feedback considerations apply to the means by which feedback is provided and received by students as a means to close the learning cycle. These ensure that sufficient and meaningful feedback is provided to each student multiple times throughout the course, and that the provided feedback is reflected upon by the student.

In some ways, these are most important as they directly encourage the learner to be involved as the assessor to some extent, the degree to which can vary depending on the assessment. To involve the learner in this capacity, consider the following:

  • Peer feedback
    • Peer feedback allows for rich and meaningful insight that can directly support and scaffold learning (Dochy, Segers & Sluijsmans, 1999)
  • Self-assessment
    • Students need the opportunity to examine feedback and determine how to improve through structured means; this can be especially powerful if part of the peer review process (Reinholz, 2015)
  • Student-led feedback
    • Support individual student development by encouraging reflection on their own learning goals before receiving feedback; have students take ownership of what they want to receive feedback on
  • Assessment guideline creation
    • Involving students directly in the creation of assessment guidelines can result in sustained motivation; students can create their own rubrics for the assessments they are completing in consultation with the instructor

Ultimately, depending on your assessment, some of these considerations may simply not be applicable, and attempting to adapt many of these to a single assessment may prove equally challenging. I would however encourage you to think about how some of these considerations could find their way into your own assessments to make the experience all the more meaningful to students and instructors alike.


Agarwal, P.K., Karpicke, J.D., Kang, S.H.K., Roediger III, H.L. & McDermott, K.B. (2007). Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22, 861-876.

Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380.

Dochy F., Segers, M. & Sluijsmans, D. (1999) The use of self-, peer and coassessment in higher education: A review. Studies in Higher Education, 24(3), 331-350.

Gharib, A. & Phillips, W. (2013). Test anxiety, student preferences and performance on different exam types in introductory psychology. International Journal of e-Education, e-Business, e-Management and e-Learning, 3(1), 1-6.

Kornell, N., Castel, A.D., Eich, T.S., & Bjork, R.A. (2010). Spacing as the friend of both memory and induction in young and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 25(2), 498-503.

Reinholz, D. (2015). The assessment cycle: A model for learning through peer assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(2), 37-41, 1-15.

Weimer, M. (2011, June, 21). A rose for student choice in assessment? Retrieved from


Kyle Scholz

Faculty of Arts and University Colleges Liaison

More Posts - Website

Crowdmark – Online grading for large courses

This Fall 2016, the University of Waterloo will have 25 courses with stockvault-pile-of-paper117595a class size of between 500 and 1000 students and 10 courses of  between 1000 and 2000 students.

The amount of paper handling to administer the potential 33,000 final exam papers from these large courses will be monumental. (For fun, guestimate the volume of paper this amounts to.)

The Mathematics Faculty has been  successfully experimenting for a year with a online grading system called Crowdmark, a company founded by Professor James Colliander of the Mathematics Department of the University of Toronto.

Professor Colliander was faced with a similar problem: grading 5000  Canadian Open Mathematics Competition (COMC) papers each year with  100 volunteers.  As with final exams, each paper is typically graded by a number of markers so keeping track of which questions are graded on which papers and when the papers are free to be passed to another marker is a time consuming and error prone business.

Crowdmark (CM) attempts to eliminate some of the time and trouble spent managing the grading process.   We are not talking about a quiz system with automatic grading. Crowdmark is hand-marking done online.  Skilled people still grade, and tests and assignments are still created for printing on paper so there is nothing new in this part of an instructor’s routine.

So, what is it that makes the marking process more efficient when done online?

  • Markers are able to grade the same paper at the  same time.  No more locating and waiting for a paper that someone else is grading.  Or waiting for a batch of papers to arrive at your location to begin your stage of grading.  Grading can be done concurrently at multiple locations and times.
  • Grades can be automatically summed, collected, summarized, distributed and recorded in a Learning Management System without needing to check for arithmetic or transcription errors.
  • No time needs to be spent returning piles of exam papers.

There is a time and money cost to using online grading.  The physical papers have to be scanned into digital format (PDF file) before grading can start. High speed scanners (500 pages per minute) can process 1000 10-page exams  in 20-30 minutes once delivered to the scanning machine.

Here I’ll briefly discuss how instructors and students use CM.

Steps for an instructor:

  • upload one test or exam pdf file into CM (leave 2 inches blank on the top of each page for CM ID info and set 1 question per page)
    • CM duplicates the test pdf for each student and adds a paper and page ID to each page
  • download from CM the pdf file of student tests and print it
  • after the test scan all written test papers into a pdf file and upload the file into CM
    • CM arranges the pdf file pages into a grid pattern: each row holds a student’s test pages
  • each marker clicks on a page in the grid to read, comment, and grade it
    • when grading is complete page grades are summed for each test paper by CM
  • match each test paper cover page student ID with a student name in your CM course (assigned seating at UW can eliminate this step)
  • you choose whether CM sends each student their grade and a CM link to their graded test paper or to keep the grades and graded papers private and just download the grades for inclusion into a course grade

Steps for a student:

  • write the test paper by hand as usual
  • may receive an email from CM with a link to a CM page showing their test results

The links at the end of this post provide further details about Crowdmark.  In addition, 2 live sessions demonstrating Crowdmark are coming up at the end of August and the beginning of September.   The first is an introduction to Crowdmark on Wednesday August 31 and  the second follows up a week later on Wednesday September 7 (1:30-3 PM) with details about a University of Waterloo system named Odyssey that works with Crowdmark.  Odyssey organizes test papers, students and exam room seating providing relief from some time-consuming management overhead.

Crowdmark is not a free service, but the University of Waterloo has a licence so there is no charge to individuals (instructors or students) at the university.

If you are interested in learning more about online grading for your course please get in touch with me.

Paul Kates
Mathematics Faculty CTE Liaison, x37047, MC 6473

Intro to Online Marking using Crowdmark: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 – 10:30 AM to 11:30 AM EDT
Crowdmark home page,   help pages and  youtube channel.
UW Odyssey Examination Management

Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (

More Posts

Program Outcomes – Join our new learning community – Veronica Brown

Goals. Aims. Objectives. Outcomes. Metrics. Performance Indicators. Ideal Graduate Attributes.

Last week, I spent some time with colleagues debating the meaning of these various terms. They are often used interchangeably but, depending who you ask, they don’t mean the same thing. I tend to lump goals, aims and objectives together because they represent our intentions – what we will work towards during a given learning experience. I see outcomes and attributes as what students are actually able to do by the end of that experience (specific behaviours, knowledge, skills, attitudes they have developed). Finally, I place metrics and performance indicators into a category of measurements of those outcomes. Our discussion last week verified that while we use these terms in the similar ways, it’s worth taking the time to clarify our shared understanding of these key terms.

Now, it’s time to expand that conversation across campus. I’m excited to announce a new learning community at CTE – program outcomes assessment. Many departments across campus are engaged in program assessment through academic program review, accreditation, and curriculum design and renewal. Bob Sproule (a member of the School of Accounting and Finance’s Learning Outcomes Committee) and I will be leading this group as we explore various aspects of program outcomes assessment.

The first session, on May 12, 2016 12:00-1:15pm in EV 241, is a brainstorming session to explore topic ideas for the coming year. Our goal is to meet twice per term, starting in Fall 2016, and we want to ensure the sessions reflect areas of interest for you, our community members. If you are unable to attend the session but are interested in joining the community, please email me, Veronica Brown (, Sr. Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Quality Enhancement, Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Small portion of a curriculum map
A slice of a curriculum map – a great tool in assessing program outcomes
Veronica Brown

Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

More Posts - Website

A band-aid for mental health – Maggie Bradley

imagesBefore you read this blog post, let me assure you that I believe every student should have access to a positive learning environment. I am in no way advocating that we should start making students fight to survive in a distressing domain. However, there is a movement spreading wildly through post-secondary campuses to offer students increasing protection from ideas they do not like and words that make them uncomfortable. To date, there is no scientific evidence that coddling students is having a positive impact on society or on their future; the widespread use of trigger warnings could be dangerous for mental health. In an article written for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pose the question: “What exactly are students learning when they spend four or more years in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence…?” (1). Using warnings to protect students from potentially harmful ideas is setting them up for larger issues once they leave the “safe space” campuses that have been created for them. Instead, let’s help teach students how to cope with these potentially triggering situations.

Assisting people’s efforts to avoid their fears is misguided. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a non-pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness that would be more beneficial to students than using trigger warnings. CBT involves the patient working with a mental cc7e34fe0b549e5eb409d27207689bdehealth counselor to help him or her “become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so [he/she] can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way” (2). The basis of the process is simple: notice that you’re being affected by a stressor, name it, describe the facts of the situation, and consider alternative interpretations. After treatment, people are less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and anger. Over time, this process becomes more automatic and also helps enhance critical thinking skills. This method can further be combined with exposure therapy, where a patient’s cognitive distortions are diluted with a gradual increase of exposure to the offending scenario. Over time, using either approach, the triggered reaction would deflated. You can’t always control the situation, but you can control how your thoughts, actions and feelings affect the situation.

Keep in mind that I am not an expert. I am not prescribing treatment, nor am I making false promises for results I cannot guarantee (which in this case – I can’t). I’m also not naïve enough to think that cognitive behavioural therapy or exposure therapy are one-stop solutions that will work for everyone. Every person and situation is different. Furthermore, not every reaction to trauma will require the use of one of these coping mechanisms.

Where is all this coming from? Straight out of high school, I attended college. I earned my diploma, worked in my field for a couple cbt-diagram-1years, and then decided it wasn’t the right fit for me. As someone who has recently made the transition back to academia from the “real world,” I’m rather shocked at how hard it is to say the right thing anymore. It can be very tricky to live in a world where “I’m offended” could be used at any given time as an unbeatable trump card. Constantly having to worry about whether an answer you give in class will elicit an upsetting response while discussing the assigned material is exhausting. As a student, I would prefer to utilize the nonthreatening environment of the classroom to discuss controversial topics instead of feeling limited by uncertain restrictions.

The above methods do not entirely invalidate the need for trigger warnings on certain material. They are an excellent temporary solution. It would be more practical long term to negotiate coping mechanisms in a classroom environment before students are released into the “real world.” Throughout elementary and into high school, students are sheltered to protect them. A safe space is provided to nurture students as they mature. In the infamous life after school people keep talking about, it is likely you will have to engage with people and ideas that make you uncomfortable. Outside of the classroom, there will be significantly less protection from any potential stressors. The long-term benefits of developing proper coping mechanisms should not be diminished.


This post was inspired by “The Coddling of the American Mind” written by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff for The Atlantic’s September 2015 issue. You can view their full article here:
To read more on trigger warnings, check out the Centre for Teaching Excellence’s tip sheet here:

(1) The Atlantic –
(2) The Mayo Clinic –

Maggie Bradley

Special Projects Assistant, Awards Winter 2016

More Posts