Using a Web Site in a Large Lecture Class to Scaffold Student’s Personal Learning Projects

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Teaching large, lecture courses pulls me towards two opposing pedagogies.  One pedagogy is instructor-centered.  Traditional, large lecture courses are generally instructor-centered.  During most of class time, the instructor communicates course material to students through lecture, demonstrations, and media.  The instructor also determines the readings to be done outside of class time.  The architecture of large classrooms, the students’ expectations, and other aspects of the system are congruent with this pedagogy and 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.  In recent decades, the education literature has described a wide variety of student-centered instructional methods.  Student-centered pedagogy encourages active student work, for example, by asking students to search for creative solutions to open-ended problems, to think critically about issues, and/or to work in groups on complex tasks.  The literature (e.g., Bridges & Hallinger, 1992; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Meyers and Jones 1993) has provided some evidence that student-centered approaches lead to increased motivation, greater retention, deeper understanding, and more positive attitudes toward the subject being taught than obtained with instructor-centered approaches.

In an attempt to build upon the advantages of both these approaches, I have combined them into my teaching of large lecture classes.  About 75% of the course grade is based on tests covering information in readings (determined by me) and class meetings.  During class meetings, I do lecture and present information to students, but meetings also involve some student-centered, active learning tasks and exercises.  The other 25% of the course grade is based on personal learning projects.  For these projects, students work individually or in small groups (my preference) to explore questions and issues they find interesting and that I believe are consistent with the goals of the course.  For example, three students might search the literature, browse the internet, and take a field trip with the goal of understanding “What makes relationships last,” “Can I learn to interpret my dreams,” or “Is hypnosis real and if so, is it effective?”  What they learn is summarized in a paper, website, or other media that they co-produce.

I have found that an evolving course web site can effectively provide much of the help that students need with these projects. 

Helping Students Get Started

Some students need concrete, specific direction on these kinds of assignments.  For them, I provide a list short titles of previous projects and another list based on media (e.g., films, books, and music) that can form the basis of an interesting project. 

Other students do not want me to provide this much direction, but they do need help selecting projects that are appropriate for the discipline.  I provide a page that defines the main subdivisions of the discipline with very brief descriptions.  For example, one subdivision of psychology is thinking, defined as problem solving, decision-making, reasoning, intelligence, creativity, and related.  For each of these subdivisions, a linked page is provided containing descriptions of sites (linked) that students may find interesting.  I have not yet been able to determine if particular kinds of sites (very interactive, controversial topics, etc) are more likely to be helpful.  Since adding the student projects to the course, the number of visits to this page of links has risen 12 fold.

Even with the information described above, many of the freshmen in my classes struggle because they are unfamiliar with directing their own learning.  They have no idea how to begin.  I have found that the assignments are more likely to be productive learning experiences if students’ general interests can be focused into a question (or several questions).  For example, students who are interested in dreams or would like to read Freud’s book on dreams, are encouraged to answer the question “What is it you’d like to know about dreams?”  The issues and questions they provide in response are good focal points for beginning a personal learning project.  To help students, I have been constructing an interactive web page that searches keywords in students input and helps guide them towards the questions and issues that can form the base of their project.  This system is still in early stages of development.

Using the above resources is enough to aid about 95% of my students.  The remaining 5% really want to meet with me in person. 

Helping Students Explore

Once students have some idea of the question(s) that they will pursue, then they need to find resources that can help them clarify their question(s) and seek answers.  Although most freshmen have basic library skills, it is rare that they have developed more specific, discipline-linked skills.  For example, none of my freshman students in the last four years has been familiar with the Social Sciences Citation Index and Psychological Abstracts.  In contrast, these students are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to search online.  At the start of the fall of 1999 and 2000, approximately 90% of the freshman in my class indicated they were competent or very competent using search engines to find information on the internet and preferred internet searching over library searching.

Unfortunately the quality of information on the web is often suspect and freshman students believe they are much better at evaluating the quality of information than they are.  For example, most do not identify common problems (such as claims for causation from a simple, single correlation study) and many do not distinguish opinions from summaries of scientific evidence.  Kay Hodson-Carlton (one of the members of our group), working with instructional librarians, developed a web site for graduate students in Nursing that provides instruction and practice at evaluating the quality of information on a web site.  Mike O’Hara (another member of our group) adapted this system to freshman classes.  I tried to adapt it to my courses, but found that it was too difficult for my students and did not attend to the scientific issues I wanted students to consider. 

The web site I created contains two parts to help students evaluate.  One part is an interactive site that helps students identify a few of the most common errors in interpreting scientific data.  The other part is an information site that summarizes some simple rules to use to judge the quality of information on a web site (or other source).  Students must use the concepts from these two areas of the web site to evaluate all sources they use for their projects. 

Helping Students Report

Word Processing.  Few students in my classes have ever collaborated using this technology.  I provide a little information about using “rich text format” so they have a simple way to share documents across word processors.  For those wanting a more sophisticated approach, I provide information about editing and collaborating using the two most commonly available word processors: MS Word and Corel WordPerfect.  

Power Point Presentations.  An noteworthy percentage of students are interested in learning to use presentation software.  I require them to use the annotation feature (i.e., presenter’s notes) of Power Point or other presentation software.  In this way, they can create an aesthetically pleasing presentation and provide all of the information they would put in a traditional paper. 

Web Sites.  The variety of tools that students use makes it difficult to create a simple web page to help all who have problems.  I am contemplating how best to elicit the assistance of highly skilled students in helping less skilled students. 

Video.  I have not yet established good systems for supporting students as they learn to use these technologies.  However, Peter McAllister (one of the members of our group) has been making progress in the development of these technologies for use with classes and the campus has recently made major innovations with regard to digital video technologies. 


Many of my students report that the personal learning projects are valuable to their learning.  After several semesters of allowing personal learning projects for extra credit, during 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 aspect of their course learning.  Interestingly, 44% indicated that the professor should have required more personal learning projects because the assignments would have helped them learn more.

From my perspective as an instructor, 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 these assignments (as well as other aspects of the course).  The mean additional time students spend on this class as a result of the projects is over 20 hours per semester.  Furthermore, the kinds of learning emphasized are very important.  These assignments are specifically designed to encourage students to develop problem solving skills (especially problem finding skills) and technology skills, along with 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 these projects can be handled without great cost or labor.   Mike O’Hara (a member of our group) and I have managed to use 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, 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 some time developing and modifying the kinds of help I provide to students, but the number of hours needed to evaluation proposals and projects is easily handled by one TA.


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., and Weinstein, C. E. (1994).  Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 9th Ed.  Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company.

Meyers, C., and 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.

Critical Reviews

Critic OO

I am comfortable with the "Using a Web Site in a Large Lecture Class to Scaffold Student's Personal Learning Projects" article....

That may be because it replicates what I do.... and I naturally think that what I do works and is productive for student learning...

Critic TTT

This is a topic that needs discussion. NPR recently had an expose on the impact of the Internet on university-level instruction. The respondents tended to discuss the amount of time that they spent answering student e-mail and less on how their instruction changed.

The author of this piece is describing how he changed his practice. His description of his own changes in practice and his statement discussing "the evolving course web-site...." could provide a basis for a case discussion regarding integrating technology into practice.

Shank in a recent T.H.E. Journal discussed the changing student and teacher roles as we move into the 21st Century. His article as well as the indicators for engaged learning at could be woven nicely into this article. Shank would be especially important for the "Helping Students Report" section because he explains that those technologies are fundamentally changing education. Additionally, the indicators of engaged learning tell us that those technologies can be used in meaningful ways, not just for the sake of using them.

This is a good start.

Critic N