Object-Based Learning in large group teaching

How objects can be used in large group teaching

Objects are useful for stimulating engagement and learning and building student confidence. This briefing describes how objects can be used in large group teaching sessions to act as a focal point for conversation and stimulate peer-to-peer interactions. The use of the objects in large group settings can be seen as an active learning tool to focus on one aspect as part of a broader delivery. Compared to small group situations the used of the object in large groups is likely to be brief (5 to 10 min in a 1 hour session) and controlled (facilitated), with defined learning outcomes to keep the students focused. Before starting the session it is helpful to determine what the aim of using the objects is.


large group teaching sessions with >150 students

Before you use the objects…

  • Define the learning outcome from the use of the objects. Is there a functional element that you want the students to identify? Do you want to use the objects to highlight a key learning point in the session? Do you want to use the objects to spark conversation between the students or between the students and yourself? Is the use of the object more abstract, being there to stimulate conversation?
  • How many objects will you need? This is dependent on the number of students present. However it helps to have one or two objects per row (if in a lecture theatre) or table (for flat classrooms). For groups of >150 this is around 15-20 objects.
  • What objects should I use? 3D printed objects of items relevant to the session could be used, for example biological molecules. Parts of machines can be used for which an understanding is needed. A range of photos with images relating to the session or completely abstract in nature could be distributed. The objects need to be easy to handle and be able to be passed around to be used successfully – nothing too big or too heavy.

machine parts used in mass spectrometry

How to use the objects

How can objects be used to consolidate knowledge and understanding? If the objects are to be used to consolidate a learning point it is useful for the students to be primed in some way before they handle the objects. It may be helpful to cover core knowledge before using the objects. New concepts can be introduced through the use of slides, videos and written material prior to distribution. The objects can then be used to develop understanding by exploring an aspect of functionality at a deeper level. This can be useful where there is a defined learning objective or core aspect of knowledge.

Using the objects as a focal point – The objects can be used in an abstract manner in which the students generate their own understanding by first handling the objects. This can be useful if the intention is to initiate a more open-ended session where the outcomes are for the student to generate their own understanding.

Distribution – Objects can be handed out starting at the end of each row of students. The students are asked to pass the objects around and handle them directly. Whilst handling the objects the students can be encouraged to talk with their peers about their observations. This is a “Think-Pair-Share” cooperative learning strategy in which the lecturer acts as a facilitator.

Initial Questioning is directed by the lecturer and is centred on those features that can be directly observed. For example, in pairs or small groups tell each other what does the object they feel like? What general shape does it have? What features can you observe? This encourages student interaction as there are no wrong answers to the questions and values personal observation.

Such open-ended questions with no wrong answers can build confidence in the students to interact with each other and with the teacher. The object can act to make the students less self-conscious as the attention is focused on the object.

Deep Questioning can further probe understanding. Once the students have confidence in interacting with each other and the lecturer, further questions can be asked such as, “What do you think the function is?” “Why is it this shape?” “How does it link to the concept and topic?” The aim of such questions is to elaborate on the initial ideas through conversation.

After using the objects…

Consolidation After handling the objects the students can be given time and encouraged to write down the key points and note the ideas and theories they have discussed on hand-outs in their own words. Student response systems such as Turning point and Socrative can be used to gauge understanding through direct questioning. Padlet or Twitter can be used to collate ideas and comments arising from the handling of the objects.

The use of the objects can act to stimulate conversation, consulate understanding and act as a none threatening point of questioning in large groups.