Discourse & Sensemaking Strategies in Large Lecture

The discourse and sense making strategies described below set up opportunities for your students to build deeper understanding of concepts through articulation and elaboration, as they engage in learning conversations that can be orchestrated in the large lecture hall with many students at once. These strategies shift some of the intellectual work to the students, as they are the ones offering the explanations, summarizing, elaborating, and articulating the material, and finding ways to connect to what they already know (Allen & Tanner, 2005). Some of these strategies have already been discussed but this section provides more information about how they can be executed in a large lecture setting. Also check out the Large Lecture Classes for more tips on making large enrollment courses more manageable and effective.  

Small Group Interactions

Question-Discussion Pauses in Lecture. This strategy takes into account that most learners have about a 20-minute span that they can listen attentively to a lecture. Breaking up a 50 minute class period with several short (3-4 minute) discussion sessions prompted and focused by questions, evenly dispersed between three (10-12 minute) blocks of lecture, with a 5-minute period at the end for summary of the class session is one of the simplest and shortest active learning strategies. This can also be modified by inserting sessions at the start and end of class (as well as in the middle) effectively "bookending" a lecture period. (Allen & Tanner, 2005).

Peer instruction with a student response system (e.g., iClicker Cloud or Poll Everywhere) or using low-tech colored cards (download colored cards here). (Adapted from the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona) Images below from a workshop presentation by Ed Prather on Saturday, April 26, at the second NSF-funded WIDER Change at the Core workshop for 30-35 STEM faculty from Western, Whatcom Community College, and Skagit Valley College.


  1. Instructor poses a conceptually challenging, multiple choice question (see examples below).

  2. Students think about the answer & vote.

  3. Students are prompted to turn & talk with a neighbor about their answer, and "convince your neighbor that you're right. Remember though that it doesn't mean you are right just because you both have the same answer."

  4. After peer discussion, students vote again.

  5. Instructor addresses the ideas based on students' responses.

Lecture-tutorials: Lecture-tutorials are worksheet-based activities for students to complete in small groups during class time

Design. After a short lecture in class, students are given pencil and paper activities that use a collaborative methodology to help students elicit, confront and resolve their naïve beliefs and reasoning difficulties, and improve their critical thinking skills and develop scientifically robust conceptual models. (Prather et al., (2005) Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Non-Science Majors, Astronomy Education Review, 3(2)).

Instructions for students:

  • Work with a partner.

  • Read the instructions and questions carefully.

  • Discuss the concepts and your answers with one another. Take time to understand it now!!

  • Come to a consensus answer you both agree on.

  • If you get stuck or are not sure of your answer, ask another group.

Instructions for instructors:

  • It is important that the instructor and teaching assistants circulate around the room while the students are working in pairs. Instructors should be available to answer questions, as well as eavesdrop on students' conversations, and guide students' reasoning as they work on the activities.

  • Leave every third or fourth row vacant so that instructors can walk into the middle of the rows, and thus reach more than just students sitting on the edges.

Purpose. The lecture-tutorial is intended to help students elicit, confront and resolve their naïve beliefs and reasoning difficulties, and improve their critical thinking skills and develop scientifically robust conceptual models. Thus, the lecture-tutorial should focus on concept(s) wherein students commonly hold alternative conceptions that impede their understanding of the scientifically normative view. Furthermore, the tutorial is not a homework assignment. It is an in class task, conducted collaboratively with peers, and instructors are available to guide students as students grapple with and resolve their alternative conceptions.

Evidence. There is research, mostly in physics, astronomy, and some in geoscience, that supports the effectiveness of lecture-tutorials specifically.

  • Prather et al., (2005) Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Non–Science Majors, Astronomy Education Review, 3(2).

  • Kortz, K. M., Smay, J. J., & Murray, D. P. (2008). Increasing learning in introductory geoscience courses using lecture tutorials. Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(3), 280.

Active Reading: Give students are 1-2 page document to read during class that introduces or expands on ideas for your lecture. Instructions for students:

  • Underline ideas that are new or surprising.

  • Circle ideas you find confusing.

  • Write any questions you have in the margins.

  • After you finish reading, pair up with someone and try to answer each others’ questions.

Concept Maps: Making a concept map can be used as a thinking tool – it takes ideas in the learner's head that may or may not be jumbled up, and makes the ideas visible for her to manipulate and thereby see connections more easily. It also enables her to work with and share ideas with others while making the concept map and discussing the ideas and connections represented. The task involves organizing ideas or concepts to address a focus question (e.g., What are the causes and consequences of climate change). Using concept maps in your class from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon. Instructions for students:

  • Work with a partner or small group of 3–4.

  • Brainstorm a list of words, concepts and/or ideas related to the focus question. Choose about 20-30 words that the group feels are the most important and central to the focus question and write them on individual sticky notes.

  • Sort the brainstormed words into clusters of related ideas, and give a relevant name to each of the clusters. Write this name on a sticky note.

  • Arrange the concepts hierarchically with bigger ideas above that encompass smaller ideas below. Add the brainstormed and clustered words hierarchically to a sheet of chart paper.

  • Begin thinking and talking about how ideas within and across clusters are related.

    • Use linking words to show how clusters and concepts are related to one another. Links can be one word, or short phrases. Use colored markers to add in lines and linking words. The linked concepts are units of meaning.

After small group interactions, how to engage in large group discussion

  1. Each small group sends representative to front of class to share their group’s ideas. Sharing could involve drawing on lecture pad, white board and/or using microphone.

  2. Graduate student instructors (GSIs) and teaching assistants (TAs) are the eyes and ears to the class and can circulate around the room, listening for patterns and interesting ideas to call upon. Instructor models for GSIs/TAs how to use discussion map to lead reflective discourse discussions in their sections. Prior to start of course, discuss roles and expectations with GSIs/TAs .

  3. Instructor calls on a few random groups to share ideas. Instructor walks around and if necessary either passes microphone or repeats for the class.

  4. After active reading, ask students to share the questions that remain unanswered in their small group discussions.

  5. Brief, to the point lectures on complex ideas.

  6. Instructor uses the discussion map (See Communicative Approach & Facilitating Conversations for more information) as a guide to facilitate whole class discussion to ask for evidence and to elicit alternative ideas or additional evidence to support claims. Important to maintain a neutral reaction and to use wait time. After discussion, instructor summarizes the main points.

  7. Rather than doing a whole group discussion in the large lecture based on the small group interactions, GSIs/TAs  bring the discussion into their sections. They discuss with instructor and other GSIs/TAs what seemed to be complex, sticky, or muddy concepts for the students based on what they heard students discussing in lecture.

In-class writing, followed by discussions in small or large groups, & instructor may provide summary

  1. Quick Writes or Minute paper asked before a lecture/activity to access prior knowledge and/or after a lecture/activity to check for understanding/personal accountability for being prepared for class: e.g., The Greenhouse Effect is caused by ______________; or Based on the reading, describe how CO2 affects the ocean.

  2. “Muddiest Point” asks students to note in writing the topic, concept or idea discussed in the lecture that they are still confused about, and to describe what specifically about this idea is confusing and exactly where in the lecture did they start to be confused. These questions can be used in a highly relevant and productive small group discussion where everyone has something to contribute to the group's understanding. You can either have students discuss their muddiest point with those around them, or have students with the same muddiest point form new discussion groups to focus on "their" question. After discussion, students add details to their writing, this time describing how their understanding has grown, and where they still have questions. These writings can be collected as exit slips and students that turn them in are provided with points.

  3. Summary of main points or key concepts asks students to describe their understanding of the important points in complete sentences, and in their own words. Conversely, you can ask the students to describe what were the guiding questions that the learning experiences addressed. If you haven't shared the guiding questions with your students, it is interesting to note whether or not they are becoming evident to the students.

  4. Reflections asks students to be metacognitive about what they have learned, how they learned it, and how it connects to their prior knowledge, and to explain their understanding - including why the wrong answer is wrong, e.g.

    • I used to think_____________about this concept, but now after further experiences I know that______________.

    • Looking at the possible explanations put forth in class, the reason(s)______________ is incorrect is because (provide evidence and explanation). The reason(s) that ____________ is the correct explanation is because (provide evidence and explanation).

    • Questions I have about this new topic about to be introduced are___________. Now after further experiences, here are my new questions___________.

    • What helped me the most to achieve an understanding of the concept?

    • Explain the concept in your own words.