When Queen's University professor Anne Godlewska encountered a large class size last year, her first thought wasn't about how she was going to handle the workload, it was about how she was going to teach her students.
"I thought to myself, 'I don't want to teach huge classes of people I never get to know' … there's just no joy in teaching that way," she said.
Instead, she decided to conduct a study and the early results were remarkable.
"There has been a significant improvement in student engagement," said Godlewska, noting the drastic difference in data between the first and second semesters with the new model.
The most "stunning" results can be seen in student contribution to class discussion, with an increase to 88% from 5%.
Also, the number of students showing up unprepared for class decreased about 74%, she added.
Working with the Queen's Centre for Teaching and Learning and Student Affairs, she wanted to explore the idea that technology could create more one-on-one interaction between professor and student.
In the first of three phases, Godlewska videotaped her Geography 101 lectures, making them available for her class of 450 students. Students in the following semester would then refer to those same lectures at home instead of in class.
This isn't necessarily a new idea, she said. The innovation comes from what she does with the extra time, leading smaller groups of 60 students in class discussion and activity.
Students still attend lectures in a hall, but not as often, she said.
The second and third semesters were a combination of both lecture and seminar.
The seminar groups meet once a week for three hours, led by Godlewska and a number of teaching assistants. Students work closely with one another and the professor, solving problems related to the course material.
Godlewska's seminars differ from mandatory first-year tutorials in that there is more opportunity for presentations and "active learning," she said. It isn't just about reading a block of text and commenting on it, she added. Students also conduct peer evaluations at the end of each session.
This lets her know who is pulling their weight and who isn't.
"It is precisely geared toward the first-year students because that's where you would not have very much of that kind of experience," she said.
The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario funds the data collection and analysis portion of the study. Technology and support and teaching costs are covered by members of the Queen's community, including Godlewska herself.
"We care about the teaching," she said.
Godlewska will continue using this model, adjusting it each semester according to student feedback. She uses a set of three surveys to measure student participation for which new software was developed.
Her recent findings are now available in a report by the council.
Students spend more time preparing for seminars and there is less absenteeism, she added.
This isn't much of a surprise to Godlewska, who knows that student engagement is better with a hands-on learning approach.
What is most surprising is the majority of students who are "quite conservative" in how they want to be taught, she said. Some prefer the traditional lecture hall because they see this as being the true university experience.
Although she doesn't necessarily advocate for any particular technology or teaching approach, Godlewska says that experimentation within post-secondary institutions is key to ensuring the best learning experience possible.