In fall, 2014, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) published findings from a Queen’s University study in which three models of delivery in large undergraduate lectures were compared (Leger et al., 2014). Findings showed that student engagement could be enhanced by a “flipped model,” wherein class lectures are viewed online, and students spend face-to-face time engaged in learning activities in small groups. However, the study also found that “deep learning” and engagement declined when face-to-face meetings were less frequent, and staff faculty ratios were increased.
The study was prompted by evidence that first year students were dissatisfied with the quality of learning they were receiving in large sections. First year courses at Queens, states the report, are at minimum around 250 students. Students described these large sections as “impersonal.” As one student summarized, “You have to teach yourself. Professors talk to you, they don’t teach.”
For the study, a first year large lecture section of Human Geography 101 was targeted for intervention. A baseline (Phase 1) was created by measuring student engagement and “deep” versus “surface” learning approaches in a standard large lecture format. 438 students attended 50 minute lectures, three times a week over a regular semester. TA support was used only for grading student assignments.
Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the study used a blended learning design. In Phase 2, students watched their lectures at home, and then attended one 80 minute session per week over the term. Groups of 50 students worked through problems, debates, and group exchanges with instructor and TA support. The student-instructor ratio for this model was 39:1. Phase 3 experimented with a “reduced resource” model with slightly fewer online lecture hours, and fewer contact hours. Students met in groups of 60 four times over the term. These sessions lasted about three hours, and again used active learning facilitated by the professor and TAs. Student-instructor ratios in this model were 54:1.
The study’s findings showed that the blended learning format was very effective for improving student engagement, and also for encouraging students to use study strategies that promote better learning outcomes. The “intensive blended format” used in Phase 2 was found to be the most effective of the three models. Phase 3, which spaced out face-to-face classes and reduced faculty to student ratios reduced the benefits of the blended model. Although the study represents only one intervention, the findings suggest that even when “active learning” strategies are used in large sections, gains depend also on consistent, high quality student-faculty engagement.
Leger, A., et al. (2014). Large first year course re-design to promote student engagement and student learning. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
 Assessment took the form of student questionnaires. These included demographic data, measures of student engagement (CLASSE, 38 Likert items), and measures of “deep” versus “surface” approaches to learning (R-SPQ-2F, 20 Likert items). Students also completed the SPQ, which measures approaches to learning higher education. Additional qualitative data was obtained through open response questionnaire items, and through student focus groups. CLASSE is a subscale of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The University of Alberta’s Colloquoy blog provides this lay description of the NSSE, as well as a link to Alberta’s results. “Deep” versus “surface” learning approaches were measured using the Revised Two Factor Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs, Kember & Leung, 2001).