In its best form, learning is not a passive process. Even at the largest universities, it is understood that lectures and papers which regurgitate the lecture notes is not quality instruction. Learning is not a spectator sport and teaching at any level needs to include active participation on the part of the students.
Large universities address this issue by offering classes with multiple components. A class in, for example, political science may include two lectures a week delivered by a tenured professor, from prepared notes, before an audience of two or three hundred students. It is the professor’s job to develop the specifics of the class curriculum.
Often, the professor will make notes from those lectures available on the campus website. Rounding out the week’s course activities will be two or perhaps even three small group sessions led by a graduate teaching assistant. These group assignments are made at the beginning of the semester and the graduate assistant is the student’s weekly personal connection to the class.
That graduate assistant will also be the catalyst for actively involving the students in the course material. In big classes, this is the heart of college teaching. It is in those group sessions that lecture material is discussed and debated. Homework assignments are part of the professor’s curriculum, but they are delivered to and graded by graduate assistants.
Smaller classes provide an opportunity for the teaching faculty member to take a more active role. He or she can lead a brief discussion of the previous lecture’s points before moving on to that day’s topic. Some faculty members will engage in discussion even if the class they are teaching numbers a hundred students. Some professors will devote one day a week solely to discussion. Some find that pairing off students and asking for an analytical point from each pair makes the process more manageable.
Other formats of group work are used in teaching college. Larger groups of three or four may be asked to format specific issues or develop solutions to a problem. It is not necessary to call on each group; the active role in college teaching is often forcing that sort of concentrated dialogue among students. It brings about the original thinking that the best learning procedures inspire.
As scholars, college teachers approach their academic disciplines in their own style. As faculty members they will also have varying theories and approaches to college teaching. Good college professors study the art of teaching: there is a wealth of material that has been developed by professionals in the field of education. Auditory learners fare well with lectures; private learners rely on books. These are the two basic tools of the university teaching classroom or lecture hall, but technology and development of teaching models have brought additional teaching tools to college.
Research and theoretical development for college learning has shown the value of social and peer interaction in the process. Thus seminars, field studies and group projects have become mainstream tools in college teaching. Information Processing Models and Personality Models have brought the psychologist’s methods to fine tuning educational strategies. Faculty members and committees now develop teaching strategies based in part on research that has been provided them.