Using a Web Site in a Large Lecture Class to Help Students with Personal Learning Projects

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Teaching large lecture courses pulls me towards two opposing pedagogies. One is instructor-centered. In traditional large lecture courses, the instructor communicates course material to students through lectures, demonstrations, and media, and determines assigned readings. The architecture of large classrooms, students' expectations, and other aspects of the system are congruent with this pedagogy; many have found that this approach can be an effective means of imparting information (McKeachie, Chism, Menges, Svinicki, & Weinstein, 1994; Nilson, 1998). The second pedagogy is student-centered. It encourages active student work by asking students to search for creative solutions to open-ended problems, to think critically about issues, and to work in groups on complex tasks. In recent decades, education literature has described a wide variety of student-centered instructional methods. The literature (e.g., Bridges & Hallinger, 1992; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Meyers & Jones 1993) has provided some evidence that student-centered approaches lead to greater motivation, retention, and understanding, as well as more positive attitudes toward the subject taught.

Because I appreciate the advantages of both pedagogies, I have incorporated both in teaching large (220-230 student) lecture courses in psychology at Ball State University. Part of the course grade is based on tests covering information from class meetings and course readings. Another part is based on personal learning projects. For these projects, students work individually or in small groups to explore issues that interest them and that are consistent with course goals. For example, a group might search literature, browse the Internet, and take a field trip to research questions such as "What makes relationships last?" or "Can I learn to interpret my dreams?" or "Is hypnosis real, and if so, is it effective?" Students summarize what they learn in a paper, Web site, or other medium they choose.

Although there are a number of ways I could help students with these projects, I have found that some evolving pages on a course Web site can provide much of the help they need. Originally, I used handouts and met with students individually or in small groups. One major advantage of a Web site is that it saves me time and reduces scheduling problems. Although it took time to develop an effective Web site, I have since reduced the time I spend with students by over 80%. A second advantage is access. Since there are computers with Internet access in many of the locations where students work, they have access to project information and help whenever they work on these projects. A third advantage is the capacity to modify. During a semester, there may be software upgrades and other technological changes on campus. I want to encourage students to use modern technologies as part of their learning, and using a Web site lets me react to what they need to know about currently available technologies. I can also easily adjust the assignment to solve problems or take into account new ideas.

Helping Students Get Started

Some students need concrete, specific direction on this kind of personal learning assignment. For them, I provide short titles of previous projects and a list of media (such as films, books, and music) that can form the basis of an interesting project. Other students need help selecting projects that are appropriate to the discipline. For them, I created pages on my Web site that define the main subdivisions of psychology. For each subdivision, I also give links to sites that students may find interesting and useful for a project. For example, the section on personality has links to Web sites that let students take personality tests. The section on perception has links to articles on subliminal perception. I have not determined which of the linked sites are most helpful, but since adding student projects to the course, the number of visits to these subdivision pages has risen 12-fold.

Even with this kind of help, many freshmen struggle because they are inexperienced in directing their own learning. I have found that the assignments are more likely to be productive if students' general interests can be focused into a question (or several questions). For example, students who are interested in dreams are encouraged to answer the question "What is it you'd like to know about dreams?" Their responses are good focal points for beginning a personal learning project.

Helping Students Explore

Once students have some idea of the problem they will investigate, they need resources to help them identify questions and answers. Although most first-year college students have basic library research skills, few have specific, discipline-linked skills. For example, none of my first-year students in the last four years has been familiar with the Social Sciences Citation Index and Psychological Abstracts. They are, however, increasingly sophisticated in their ability to search online. Approximately 90% of my first-year students in in fall 1999 and fall 2000 said they were competent using Internet search engines, and preferred Internet searching to library searching.

Unfortunately, the quality of information on the Web is often suspect, and first-year students often overestimate their ability to evaluate the quality of information they find. For example, most do not identify common problems (such as inappropriate claims for causation from a single-correlation study), and many do not distinguish opinions from summaries of scientific evidence. Although there are many libraries that have developed Web sites to help students learn these skills, I usually found them too difficult for freshmen. Also, they often did not include critical information about evaluating scientific information.  

In response, I created pages on my Web site to help students learn to evaluate the quality of information they find. One of the pages is interactive and helps students identify the most common errors in interpreting scientific data. Another page summarizes some simple rules to judge the quality of information on a Web site (or other source). Students must use the concepts from these pages of the Web site to evaluate all sources they use for their projects. 

Helping Students Report

Students are encouraged to produce a report on their subject using modern technologies, but many are not familiar with creating products using these technologies. To help them, the Web site includes some technical support:


Many of my students report that the personal learning projects are valuable. After several semesters of allowing personal learning projects for extra credit, in fall 1999, I required all students to complete two personal learning projects. At the end of the semester, 89% reported that the personal learning projects were a valuable component of the course. Interestingly, 44% indicated that I should have required more personal learning projects because the extra assignments would have helped them learn more.

From my perspective, these personal learning projects are valuable pedagogy. First of all, the amount of time students spend learning has dramatically increased since this assignment was added to the course. I ask students to keep track of the amount of time they spend on various aspects of the course, and they report that the mean additional time they spend as a result of these projects is over 20 hours per semester. This is appropriate given the credit hours of the coursethe increase has not unfairly burdened students. Furthermore, the kinds of learning emphasized are important. These assignments encourage students to develop problem-solving skills—and especially problem-finding skills—as well as technology skills, and they also provide the other advantages of student-centered pedagogy. Before I required personal learning projects, I had found it nearly impossible to embrace these goals in large classes.

I have found that I can handle these projects without great cost or labor. Along with Ball State University colleague Mike O'Hara, I have piloted the use of a proctored, computer-based testing laboratory to give all exams outside of class time. The testing process no longer requires a TA to be involved with proctoring, scoring, giving make-up exams, and recording grades. Instead, I have re-defined the TA job description to emphasize evaluating proposals and grading personal learning projects. For the personal learning projects, I do spend time developing and modifying the kinds of help I provide to students, but the number of hours needed to evaluate proposals and projects is easily handled by one TA.

Not only do students value these projects, but they also find the course's technological requirements valuable. At the end of one semester, I asked students general questions about the technology used. The response scales were 5-point Likert scales, in which 1 was labeled "strongly disagree" and 5 was labeled "strongly agree." One hundred twenty-four students completed the survey. The mean response was 4.17 to the item "The faculty member teaching this course used computer-based technologies (e.g., a course Web site and computer presentations in class) to present information to help me learn." The mean response was 3.93 to the item "The faculty member teaching this course encouraged me to use computer-based technologies to help me learn the subject matter of this course." I have little doubt that students found that technology helped them learn.


My original intent was to encourage student-centered learning in my large class. But traditional methods of doing this took too much time, and my department was not able to fund more student assistants. Had I not found ways to use modern technology to achieve these goals, I would have been forced to abandon my plans.


Bridges, E. M., & Hallinger, P. (1992). Problem-based learning for administrators. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Books.

McKeachie, W. J., Chism, N., Menges, R., Svinicki, M., & Weinstein, C. E. (1994). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (9th ed.). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.

Meyers, C., & Jones, T. B. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (1998). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker.