Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 824-828
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Enhancing Student Engagement through Small Group Pedagogies
in a Large Class Environment
Ayse A. Bilgin1, David Bulger1, Greg Robertson2, Sigurbjorg Gudlaugsdottir1
1Department of Statistics, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia
2Department of Education, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia
Received August 30th, 2012; revised September 28th, 2012; accepted October 15th, 2012
Higher education institutions all over the world have been increasing their student intake due to higher
demands for education, creating larger and larger classes. The problems of teaching a large class are
widely recognized and various solutions have been suggested. The pedagogy literature establishes that
learning outcomes and engagement for students in large classes are improved when students feel that they
belong to small groups within the classes. This article describes recent changes to a second year statistics
unit with large practicals aimed initially at promoting group work, and more generally at conferring some
of the benefits of smaller classes. Specifically, we aimed to increase students’ interaction with tutors and
each other, and to develop students’ verbal communication skills and confidence through short unre-
hearsed presentations. Results of preliminary analysis of students’ responses to survey questions on their
learning habits and learning environment showed that students are generally happy with the new learning
space regardless of their age, gender and whether they were local or international students. Although stu-
dents felt less comfortable presenting their solutions to the class, they found it worthwhile to listen to
peers’ solution presentations. Overall, students found their peers and teaching staff to be supportive of
their learning.
Keywords: Student Engagement; Collaborative Learning; Learning Spaces; Large Class; Unrehearsed
Student Presentations
Macquarie University is a large institution in Sydney, Aus-
tralia. It has about 24,000 undergraduate students, 12,000 post-
graduate students, 1120 academic and 1245 non-academic staff.
The academic year is divided into two 13-week semesters, each
followed by a 3-week formal examination period, plus a 6-week
summer session for selected units.
One of the largest units we teach in the Department of Statis-
tics is a second year unit, Operations Research I, which typi-
cally has 750 - 1100 enrolments annually. This unit covers
topics such as linear programming, project planning, simulation,
transportation, transshipment and assignment models, inventory
and queuing. Every semester we have two streams of lectures
since our largest lecture theatre can only hold 500 students.
Students are expected to attend a three hours lecture and one
hour practical class each week. The theory and examples of the
applications of the theory are presented and discussed in the
lectures. In the practicals, students solve problems under the
supervision of the practical leader and another academic. Al-
though we have a number of small classrooms that could be
used for practical classes, due to limited resources, we are un-
able to have small practical classes for these students. For close
to a decade we had practical classes with 100 to 150 students in
lecture theatres with two academics present. The crowded space
limited the practicable types of lesson structure, impairing stu-
dent engagement.
The University has responded to current research in the de-
sign of learning and teaching spaces by building new learning
spaces such as C5C Forum, a space which flexibly supports a
variety of learning and teaching modes. The audio visual sys-
tem in C5C Forum has as its backbone a Crestron Digital Me-
dia system, enabling presenters to display different devices on
different screens. The user devices include 2 High Definition
document cameras, a resident PC, Bluray player and the ability
to plug in an external laptop. One of the great features of the
system is the annotation capability, allowing the operator to
write or draw over the image projected from any of the user
devices onto the screens. This space was made available in first
semester 2011, and our unit was the first to use it for regular
Our current project is a component of a bigger project—ini-
tially funded by a 2011 Priority Grant, led by Dr Greg Robert-
son from the Department of Education and including teaching
teams from all four faculties—which explores the ways in
which academics use C5C Forum’s innovative and flexible
learning environment to maximise the engagement, satisfaction
and learning outcomes of their students. Although this space
can also support more didactic teaching styles, the technology
embedded within it creates a flexible learning environment that
can support small group work within a larger class. It also pro-
vides opportunity for the academics to physically approach the
students and have individual conversations during the class.
The problems of teaching a large class are widely recognised
and various solutions are suggested (Aagard, 2010). The litera-
ture documents that, when students are in large classes, if they
feel that they are in a small group within that class, their learn-
ing outcomes and engagement will increase (CTE, 2008). Some
of the aims of this project are to make students feel part of a
small class while there are close to a hundred students in the
class; to increase student-student interaction; to increase stu-
dent-tutor interaction; and to help students to gain workplace
skills—specifically verbal communication skills—through short
This article presents the results of a survey conducted in the
Semester 2, 2011 (August 2011 to November 2011) offering of
Operations Research I. Development of material for that se-
mester’s practical sessions was informed by our study of the
effectiveness of the prior semester (Semester 1, 2011). Semes-
ter 1 was the first semester we used C5C Forum. We had ini-
tially hoped that the adoption of this new teaching space would
resolve student engagement issues we had previously identified,
but in Semester 1 we quickly observed that changes to the prac-
ticals’ structure would be required to take best advantage of the
new learning space’s flexibility.
Semester 2 was the first semester in which we required stu-
dents to present their solutions to the class, but new exercises
for the practical sessions are developed only annually. Thus the
main changes from Semester 2, 2011 are that 1) we have de-
veloped new exercises, and corresponding lesson plans, spe-
cifically for the new lesson structure (Bulger et al., forthcom-
ing); and 2) the tutors are much more confident with the new
structure than when it was new and unfamiliar to them.
Therefore we anticipated a further improvement in student
engagement, and we expected to identify possibilities for im-
proving our curriculum to enable higher student engagement
and as a result of this, higher achievement outcomes for our
students. The ethical aspects of this research are approved by
the Macquarie University Human Ethics Committee (Reference
Number 5201100637).
The student evaluation questionnaire comprised 45 items
clustered in five sections: demographic and timetable informa-
tion (see Table 1), attitudes about C5C Forum (see Table 2),
perceptions of the learning and teaching activities that occurred
with that space (see Table 3), participants’ own learning styles
(see Table 4), and the class’s interpersonal dynamics (see Ta-
ble 5).
The demographic and timetable items served as independent
variables in this study and included personal information (age,
sex, nationality) and study load, and identified the classes they
attended (lecture and practical streams). Students’ attitudes to
C5C Forum (five rating scale items: strongly agree [5], agree
[4], neither agree nor disagree [3], disagree [2], strongly dis-
agree [1]) related to their perceptions of the environment itself
(lighting, temperature, noise, lines of sight) and whether it ef-
Table 1.
Independent variables.
Variable Description Type Descriptive statistics
Lecture In which of two lecture streams the student was surveyed dichotomous 31% evening, 69% day
Age The student’s age, in five-year bins numeric mean = 22.5 y (sd = 1.84 y)
Sex The student’s sex dichotomous 35% male, 65% female
Status Whether the student is local, as opposed to international dichotomous 89% international, 11% domestic
Units Number of units the student studied that semester (four is a full-time load)numeric mean = 3.87 (sd = 0.44)
Prac Which Practical class the student normally attended nominal (9 levels) Gini coefficient = 0.30
This table shows the names, descriptions, types and descriptive statistics of the independent demographic and timetable variables. (Sheppard’s correction for binned data
was applied in estimating the standard deviation of age.)
Table 2.
Room suitability survey responses.
Response variable description Mean (sd)LectureAge Sex Status Units Prac
The environmental conditions in this classroom (ie lighting and
temperature control) were optimal for learning. 4.26 (0.75)0.33310.0426 0.1677 0.0878 0.85960.4260
We rarely had disruption due to noise from outside the room. 4.28 (0.88)0.62760.22030.2178 0.6396 0.42270.8579
The arrangement of the seats and desks effectively supported
students to engage in the range of teaching methods used in this class. 4.17 (0.81)0.14320.99720.4141 0.2988 0.68350.5716
I could see and hear the teacher clearly. 4.32 (0.71)0.36480.86350.9634 0.6651 0.56300.7623
When students were working on in-class activities, the noise did not
disturb my thinking. 4.03 (0.77)0.57490.81370.3108 0.9458 0.67420.8442
The rows in this table represent responses to five-point Likert scale survey questions relating to the practical venue’s affordances. For each response, the mean
and standard deviation are given, as well as the null probabilities (p-values) of pairwise rank tests of association with the demographic/timetable variables. For
the three dichotomous column variables (Lecture, Sex and Status) the association was tested with a Wilcoxon rank sum test. For the two numeric column vari-
ables (Age and Units), a Kendall tau test was used. Association with Prac, a nominal variable, was tested with a Kruskal-Wallis test. All tests were corrected for
ties. In this and subsequent tables, p-values lower than 0.05 appear in bold, and p-values lower than 0.01 are also underlined. No multiple testing adjustment has
been made.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 825
Table 3.
Class activity survey responses.
Response variable description Mean (sd) Lecture Age Sex Status Units Prac
The learning objectives were clearly stated at the start of
each class. 4.21 (0.70)0.6794 0.8354 0.9099 0.6837 0.0307 0.2454
A variety of teaching methods was used during the class. 3.80 (0.84)0.5971 0.9914 0.9791 0.3353 0.9682 0.0422
In class we worked on activities, problems or tasks that
allowed us to practise the skills and to apply the
knowledge we had been taught in this unit.
4.15 (0.74)0.4925 0.9124 0.8739 0.6717 0.0451 0.7536
I was given the opportunity to work with other students
on these in-class activities. 3.95 (0.83)0.8567 0.1210 0.1015 0.4940 0.0012 0.3827
Whilst we were working on these in-class activities,
suggestions and feedback were provided to help students
progress with their work.
3.98 (0.77)0.5756 0.7266 0.4343 0.4454 0.1584 0.1821
We discussed the outcomes of these in-class activities as
a whole class. 3.97 (0.81)0.9465 0.2878 0.6901 0.9363 0.6325 0.0885
Students readily contributed to these discussions. 3.79 (0.85)0.9752 0.3148 0.3490 0.9131 0.2583 0.8189
At the end of the class had a deeper understanding of
how to approach solving these types of problems or tasks. 3.96 (0.78)0.6785 0.6002 0.5796 0.8587 0.9548 0.5903
These in-class activities have prepared me to tackle the
unit's assessment tasks effectively. 3.96 (0.76)0.2879 0.6143 0.7783 0.7968 0.5981 0.3925
In this class I was encouraged to take responsibility for
directing my own learning. 4.03 (0.72)0.6590 0.9501 0.4137 0.3210 0.0278 0.1567
This class has enhanced my critical thinking ability. 3.82 (0.85)0.1412 0.3853 0.1454 0.6215 0.1649 0.0172
Overall, I am satisfied that this class provided me with a
high quality and valuable learning experience. 3.98 (0.82)0.2150 0.0257 0.5446 0.3681 0.0093 0.1112
Overall, I am satisfied that this unit provided me with a
high quality and valuable learning experience. 4.02 (0.81)0.4789 0.1415 0.4296 0.0799 0.2345 0.1108
Students were given enough time to work on the
problems’ solutions. 4.12 (0.82)0.4397 0.9115 0.6097 0.9124 0.7110 0.5581
Students were given enough time to present their
solutions to the class. 3.85 (0.72)0.4866 0.2340 0.6003 0.1131 0.5701 0.0183
Being able to present solutions to the class helps prepare
me for life after university. 3.84 (0.88)0.6033 0.5253 0.7022 0.4313 0.4417 0.1023
I was (or would have been) willing to present my solution
to the class. 3.86 (0.77)0.7060 0.8620 0.8286 0.8310 0.9343 0.3060
I was (or would have been) confident to present my
solutions to the class. 3.75 (0.94)0.4858 0.4156 0.5464 0.3549 0.4225 0.2000
I found it worthwhile to see other students presenting
their solution to problems. 4.31 (0.75)0.4939 0.9088 0.5080 0.0535 0.4425 0.4816
I found it useful when teaching staff came and discussed
my work with me at my desk. 3.85 (0.87)0.0878 0.5918 0.0340 0.1433 0.0743 0.6868
The rows in this table represent responses to five-point Likert scale survey questions relating to the learning and teaching activities conducted in the practical class. Tests
and table format are as in Table 2.
fectively supported the in-class activities. Students’ attitudes to
the learning and teaching activities they experienced in C5C
Forum (twenty rating scale items: strongly agree [5], agree [4],
neither agree nor disagree [3], disagree [2], strongly disagree
[1]) were assessed in terms of whether they were provided with
opportunities to be active and collaborative, whether these ac-
tivities enhanced their learning, and whether they were satisfied
with the quality and value of their learning experience. Stu-
dents’ learning styles were assessed in terms of their work
preferences and their approaches to learning. Four items from
Lizzio and Wilson’s (2006) group readiness questionnaire were
used to assess students’ work preferences. Two items related to
a preference for working “alone” and two items for working
“with others”. Responses were made on a five point frequency
scale (almost always [5], frequently [4], half the time [3],
sometimes [2], never-rarely [1]). Eight items were drawn from
the twenty item Revised two-factor Study Process Question-
naire (Biggs, Kember, & Leung, 2001), four from the deep
approach scale (items: 1, 6, 17, 18) and four from the surface
approach scale (items: 2, 12, 15, 34), but in some instances the
wording was changed slightly to better reflect the learning en-
vironment in C5C Forum. Responses were made on a five-point
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Table 4.
Learning style survey responses.
Response variable description Mean (sd)Lecture Age Sex Status Units Prac
I prefer learning situations where I am able to work on
my own. 4.08 (0.77)0.4471 0.5686 0.7507 1.0000 0.6866 0.7390
I tend to look for opportunities to work with other
students. 3.45 (0.94)0.5991 0.6911 0.7554 0.8267 0.0738 0.3696
I find that completing a project by myself is the most
satisfying way for me to work. 3.61 (0.96)0.9912 0.0716 0.3727 0.1527 0.8624 0.5645
I find I work best when I am working with others. 3.45 (0.92)0.0019 0.5543 0.2422 0.9368 0.3467 0.1342
I make a point of looking at most of the suggested
readings for each lecture. 3.46 (0.91)0.0033 0.1949 0.4761 0.2947 0.3637 0.0659
I generally restrict my study to work that is/specifically
set as I think it is unnecessary to do anything extra. 3.42 (0.95)0.4286 0.0002 0.2555 0.1069 0.5345 0.5987
I find that it is not helpful to study topics in any great
depth. The more I read, the more I get confused and it’s
really just a waste of my time.
2.99 (1.16)0.1741 0.0339 0.1782 0.3513 0.5018 0.0785
I find that studying often gives me a feeling of deep
personal satisfaction. 3.52 (0.98)0.7171 0.2679 0.9800 0.6473 0.1990 0.0639
I see no point in learning material which is not likely to
be assessed. 3.11 (1.12)0.0573 0.7084 0.1856 0.4029 0.0433 0.4490
My aim is to pass the course while doing as little work as
possible. 2.87 (1.33)0.1662 0.5307 0.0593 0.4707 0.1011 0.8964
I come to most classes with specific questions in mind
that I want answered. 3.49 (1.03)0.6048 0.3839 0.6546 0.7543 0.2927 0.0577
I find that most new topics are interesting and I often
spend extra time trying to learn more about them. 3.36 (1.05)0.1038 0.5796 0.1865 0.0671 0.4859 0.3053
The rows in this table represent responses to five-point Likert scale survey questions relating to learning style. Tests and table format are as in Table 2. (One of
the Wilcoxon rank sum tests reported a p-value of exactly 1, but for rank tests this is an event of positive probability.)
Table 5.
In-class communication survey responses.
Response variable description Mean (sd)LectureAge Sex Status Units Prac
The other students in this class were friendly and supportive, and I felt
I belonged to a community of learners/The other students in this class
were unfriendly and unsupportive, and I felt a sense of alienation from
the class.
5.00 (1.17)0.4679 0.2939 0.0196 0.6274 0.3580 0.1152
The teachers in this class were available, helpful and sympathetic to
my needs as a learner/The teachers in this class were unavailable,
unhelpful and unsympathetic to my needs as a learner.
5.81 (1.23)0.0519 0.7934 0.5976 0.6324 0.3526 0.0818
The rows in this table represent responses to five-point Likert scale survey questions relating to communication with teachers and other students in the practical
class. Tests and table format are as in Table 2.
frequency scale (almost always [5], frequently [4], half the time
[3], sometimes [2], never-rarely [1]). The interpersonal dynam-
ics of the class were assessed with two items (seven point bipo-
lar rating scales) drawn from the Australasian Survey of Stu-
dent Engagement (Radloff & Coates, 2010). The degree of staff
support item consisted of two contrasting statements which
portrayed staff as either being “available, helpful and sympa-
thetic to my needs as a learner” [7] or “unavailable, unhelpful
and unsympathetic to my needs as a learner” [1]. The degree of
peer support item consisted of two contrasting statements
which portrayed the peer environment as either being “friendly
and supportive, and I felt I belonged to a community of learn-
ers” [7] or “unfriendly and unsupportive, and I felt a sense of
alienation from the class” [1].
Data Collection and Data Set
Students in the unit under study were surveyed in their lec-
ture classes in the final week of the semester (i.e., November
2011). The questionnaire was administered by the third author,
who was not involved in the unit in any way. It was explained
to the students that their participation in the study was volun-
tary, and that their responses were anonymous.
Out of a class of 351 students, 150 participated in the survey
(43%), presenting a possible source of bias. Demographic data
for all students enrolled in that offering of the unit were ob-
tained for comparison. Contingency tables were tested at a 5%
significance level for the hypotheses that each student did or
did not complete the survey independently of six demographic
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 827
variables: age, sex, international/domestic status, whether Eng-
lish is the main language spoken at home, part-time/full-time
status, and the faculty of enrolment.
Categorical variables overwhelmingly taking a single value
were removed from consideration.
The collected surveys had very little missing data (1.7% of
fields). The items in the data set are presented in Tables 1-5:
Table 1 describes the demographic and timetable variables, and
Tables 2-4 describe Likert scale variables measuring students’
attitudes to the space, the learning and teaching activities, their
own learning style, and the class’s interpersonal dynamics,
Statistics and Data Analysis
The statistical analysis was done in R (R Development Core
Team 2012) using the coin package (Conditional Inference
Procedures in a Permutation Test Framework) and the built-in
stats package. Descriptive statistics (mean and standard devia-
tion) for all variables are presented. Associations between
demographic/timetable variables and Likert responses were
tested at 5% and 1% significance levels, using rank tests: the
Wilcoxon rank sum test for dichotomous—ordinal associations,
the Kendall tau test for ordinal—ordinal associations and the
Kruskal-Wallis test for nominal—ordinal associations.
Demographic groups found to be significantly overrepre-
sented in the survey sample were women (65.3% of respon-
dents but 54.4% of the class), students who spoke English at
home (10.0% of respondents but 3.7% of the class) and
part-time students (2.7% of respondents but 0.3% of the class).
In fact, more students claimed on the survey to speak English at
home and to be part-time students than were counted in those
categories in the enrolment database, suggesting varying inter-
pretations. These two variables, whether English is spoken at
home and full-time/part-time status, were both omitted from
subsequent analysis, along with faculty of enrolment, because
in each case, in either the class or the sample or both, one value
was overwhelmingly popular. The sex bias is substantial but
Table 2 shows that students generally considered the room
(C5C Forum) a suitable learning environment, with no very
significant (p < 0.01) demographic or timetable trends.
Table 3 shows an overall positive response to the teaching
and learning activities. Interestingly, in this group, students
most often agreed that they found it worthwhile to see other
students presenting their solutions to problems, but least often
feltconfident themselves to present solutions to the class. There
were two very significant associations: students with a heavier
course load showed a greater tendency to agree that they were
given an opportunity to work with other students on in-class
activities, and to be satisfied that the class provided a high
quality and valuable learning experience.
Table 3 also shows that a student’s timetabled practical class
was significantly (0.01 p < 0.05) associated with the percep-
tion that a variety of teaching methods were used, that the class
enhanced critical thinking ability, and that students were given
enough time to present their solutions to the class.
Table 4 gauged students’ learning styles. There were three
very significant associations, with older students more likely to
estrict their study to set work, and students in the evening lec-
tures more likely to look at the suggested readings and to find
working with others productive.
Table 5 shows that, overall, students found each other and,
especially, the teaching staff to be supportive and available.
Women found other students friendly and supportive (mean
5.21) significantly more than men did (mean = 4.61).
Conclusion and Discussion
Overall the results of this survey support the innovations we
have made to the location and structure of the practical classes.
The very significant associations in Table 4 are consistent
with our prior impression that older students and employed
students (who tend to be the ones in evening lectures) have
more focused and strategic study habits.
We have no control over the demographic variables, so the
associations most relevant to the refinement of our teaching
practice were those involving which practical class a student
attended. We found that the practical sessions varied in effect-
tive time management, in enhancement of critical thinking, and
in students’ perception of a variety of teaching methods. This
accorded with our finding, in observing the practical sessions
that the various tutors took quite different approaches to run-
ning the sessions, and that some were more skilled than others
at running the sessions to a workable schedule.
We have, of course, no wish to stamp out the personality of
any of our tutors, but more consistency seemed desirable, and
the quantitative and qualitative data collected from this study
led us to develop prescriptive lesson plans, outlining each prac-
tical session’s learning objectives and a timetabled sequence of
activities. This is an ongoing study, and the results of this re-
finement will be reported in a future publication.
This project is funded through the Innovation and Scholar-
ship Program, Faculty of Science Learning and Teaching
Grants Scheme at Macquarie University. The authors also wish
to express their appreciation to Dr Nino Kordzhakhia, Ms Bala
Pasupathy, Mr Anthony Lam, Mr Darren Johnson,Mr Ademir
Hajdarpasic , and Mr Grant Adams.
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Copyright © 2012 SciRes.