Teacher-focused vs. Student-focused teaching in small and large group settings

Law is a discipline in which ex-cathedra teaching in big groups was the norm. However, in recent years there are attempts to adopt a more interactive and student-focused teaching approach, notably in the US and UK, and northern European countries. In this short essay, I will reflect on how I approach teaching in small and large groups,

  • how I approach teaching in small and large groups,
  • to what extent I use teacher-focused and student-focused approaches, and
  • whether I could further support deeper learning by my students through concentrating even more on student-focused teaching.

LSE Law typically organises teaching in two formats. The first setup is the ‘lecture+class’ format, i.e. the entire group attends a two-hour lecture per week. Besides, the group is split into smaller groups of up to fifteen students, having a one-hour class session every fortnight. The second setup to organise a course is the ‘seminar’ format, i.e. a group of up to 30 students convenes once per week for a two or three-hour session. My courses follow the lecture+class format due to their sheer size of 90+ students.

My current approach to teaching small and large groups

Trigwell et al. provide a nomenclature of teaching approaches. As its central organising principle, it focuses on the shift of emphasis from teacher-focussed to student-focused teaching. The first conception is one where the teacher accurately imparts his knowledge to his students, whereas a student-focussed conception is one where students, facilitated by their teacher, actively construct meaning and possibly change relevant concepts (Devlin, 2006, 113). Further, it observes the change of intended learning outcomes from the acquisition of information, to the acquisition of underlying concepts and ultimately the shift in students’ conception of a subject (Trigwell et al., 1994, 75-83; 1999, 58). Trigwell et al. sort different types of teaching approach from Approach A to Approach E (Trigwell et al., 1994, 78). Within this nomenclature, I would classify and describe my teaching in Financial Law and Financial Regulation as follows.

Large group teaching

Here, for about one-third or half of the time, I adopt a ‘teacher-focussed’ strategy with the intention that students acquire the concepts of the discipline’ (corresponding to Approach B, see Trigwell et al., 1994, 79-80). I attempt to deliver a thought-provoking presentation that encourages students to engage with the substance critically. This introductory part includes several brief periods of interaction to keep students engaged with the matter (Duron et al., 2006, 162). For the remaining part of the lecture, I follow the idea of ‘teacher/student interaction strategy with the intention that students acquire the concepts of the discipline’, which corresponds to Trigwell’s Approach C (see Trigwell et al., 1994, 79-80). Typically, I would project an open question or a simple diagram on the screen and would the group allow 5-10 minutes or so to develop the relevant concepts. My intervention would be limited to asking guiding questions.

Small group teaching

My small-group class teaching is based on Approach E of the Trigwell system, i.e., it is a ‘student-focussed strategy aiming at students changing their conceptions’.

Typically, I would make essay questions available to students well before the class. They relate to concepts previously addressed in the lecture. In class, students are then required to consider the idea in a different context or to view it from a different perspective. To take an example from my course on financial regulation: during the lecture, risk models used for internal risk management by banks are identified as problematic and partly erratic per se. In the following class session, I encourage the group to transfer that knowledge to a different possible application of risk modelling, notably by regulators under the Basel framework (which is even more problematic as to results, for different reasons). My role remains confined to recording their thoughts on the whiteboard and guiding them back on track should their ideas go astray. After the lecture, they receive a handout where I summarise their main points in the format of bullet points or an abbreviated essay, which at the same time makes them aware of what is expected their exams (see Duron et al, 2006, 162).

Could and should I move more towards student-centred teaching?

However, so far lectures are student-focussed only in parts, and the student-focused classes do not work flawlessly. Hence the question whether I could and should concentrate more on student-focused teaching, as the concept that is often described as superior (see Kember and Gow, 1997, 68). I don’t think so.

I agree in principle with Trigwell et al. and other authors that student-focused teaching typically entails a ‘deep learning’ experience (Trigwell et al., 1999) which in turn guarantees high-quality learning outcomes (Devlin, 2006, 114). A deep approach to learning can be summarised as an attempt to make sense of content, while the superficial approach to learning can be described as attempting to remember content (Gibbs and Coffey, 2004, 89).However, it is a question of skill whether teacher-focussed teaching can have equally important results in terms of achieving learning outcomes. In that sense, I agree with Kember and Gow (1997, 68 – ‘there is evidence of surface-achieving approaches’) and Gibbs and Coffey (2004, 91) that both approaches are not at opposite ends of the same scale, but can be complementary. In particular, as purely student-focused teaching also faces limitations, including in the actual setting of my courses.

However, it is a question of skill whether teacher-focussed teaching can have equally important results in terms of achieving learning outcomes. In that sense, I agree with Kember and Gow (1997, 68 – ‘there is evidence of surface-achieving approaches’) and Gibbs and Coffey (2004, 91) that both approaches are not at opposite ends of the same scale, but can be complementary. In particular, as purely student-focused teaching also faces limitations, including in the actual setting of my courses.

Concerning large group teaching, I have so far maintained a combination of approaches that also includes teacher-focussed parts. The main reason is the size of the group, which excludes de facto the majority of students from the discussion because it is impossible to include them all for lack of time, apart from the issue regarding anxieties regarding speaking in large audiences. As a consequence, many students may lose interested if they are bound to listen to others debating for too long. Second, for purposes of introducing students to any new substance, in particular, where the relevant substance is not available as reading, a partly teacher-focussed lecture seems a necessity (Devlin, 2006, 114). It is unrealistic that students develop a ‘deep’ understanding of matters in a discussion on their own during the available short time, where I had to invest years of research to conceptualise it. Teacher-focused teaching can be the more efficient delivery method in this case and equally able to teach students critical thinking (Duron et al, 2006, 162). It rather depends on whether the teaching inspires students by setting clear learning outcomes, by teaching through questioning, and by constantly giving feedback (Duron et al., 2006, 162).

(slightly edited on 24 September 2017)