Using Objects 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.

What is Object Based Learning?

@dave_thesmith & @andrewmid 

Object-Based Learning (OBL) is a student-centred learning approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning. Objects may take many forms, small or large, but the method typically involves students handling or working at close quarters with and interrogating physical artefacts. The objects are brought into the learning environment for small group teaching or large group lectures. In this way, the use of objects can act as multi-sensory “thinking tools” to promote learning and engagement.

Objects can be used in multiple ways and, in all cases, the tactile nature of the object, the association made with it and understandings that come from it can become useful in making learning real. The objects are used to stimulate the learner’s imagination and to help them apply their understanding to other contexts and problems. The central proposition of OBL is that working with objects mediates and strengthens learnings (Romanek & Lynch, 2008).

What is Object-Based Learning?

OBL is a form of active learning (Freeman et al., 2014). Objects offer a tactile experience for students, which challenges them to interrogate the object and conceptualise their thinking. While the teacher facilitates this session, the students construct meaning for themselves through their interactions with each other centred on the object (Hannan et al., 2013). It represents a social constructivist approach therefore in which the students develop their knowledge and understanding though interaction with objects based on a prior understanding (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2015). This approach enables the student to explore ideas, processes and events related to the object and further link these observations to complex abstract ideas and concepts.

Where has it been used?

Students are often presented with a range of visual interpretations including drawings, images, dynamic visuals, animated visuals, multimedia, and virtual reality environments. Schönborn & Anderson (2006) state that the ability to visualise ideas is a key skill for all students. OBL can be used to aid in this visualisation and to act as a focal point on which to generate ideas. It has been used in the study of museum artefacts in small groups and to increase student peer-to-peer interaction in the fields of biology and chemistry, where it is used to help them gain a better understanding of structure-to-function relationships and as tool for reflective practice (Table 1).

How has it been used?

Students are asked to physically handle the objects and make observations about its form, draw meaning from it, make comparisons to other objects or discuss its function. OBL is useful to engage students who don’t respond well to written materials and can be used to reinforce material covered in other media. OBL sessions can be effective in increasing learning by delivering core knowledge, contextualising content, and explaining difficult concepts. A number of different approaches can be taken.

Table 1. Practical examples of Object Based Learning.
Picture2Biology3D printed objects have been used to discuss and understand function designDesignpresenting students with unfamiliar objects and asking them to consider design and function. artArtusing art works spaced around a room to generate peer-to-peer interactions.



Chemistrymolecular models have been used to understand geometry.


Englishanatomical drawings have been used to help teach Shakespeare



LEGO Serious Play – objects used as metaphors to reflect on learning, either in tandem with, or instead of writing

  • Problem Solving – Problems can be set based on the object. What is this object? What is its function? The activity should be both mentally and physically stimulating through some form of problem solving or experimentation.
  • Questioning – Objects can be used to encouraging students to develop their own questions about the items they are exploring, and to learn to develop strategies for answering those questions. The object can also be used to compare with other objects
  • Peer-to-peer interaction – Objects can be used as a focal point for conversation. Lessons incorporating objects allowing students to work cooperatively, share their learning with peers, and pool their knowledge.
  • Abstract thinking – the object lacks connection to real world application but becomes a focus for more effective or aesthetic engagement in learning, especially in a social setting.

Teaching with objects creates a direct, sensory connection between learners and their subjects that results in new levels of interest and attention. Findings from a number of studies including Chatterjee’s (2015) have concluded that the students gain real knowledge by being actively involved in the experience of handling the objects. The benefit of these objects has also been demonstrated in an analysis of visio-spatial thinking in chemistry. In this study it was concluded that adept visual perception skills correlate with achievement in other tasks (Dori, 2001).

Resources / Bibliography

Video – Introduction to Object Based Learning – detailing its use in Museums and Collections.

Case study – Wow: The power of objects in object-based learning and teaching

Case study – Teaching with Objects and Photographs Supporting and Enhancing Your Curriculum

Case study – Use of 3D printed objects in large group teaching

Book Chapter – Chatterjee, H. and Duhs, R. (2010) Object-based learning (OBL) in higher education (HE): pedagogical perspectives on enhancing student learning through collections. London: UCL, Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design (CETLD).

Reference List

Chatterjee HJ, Hannan L: Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. Routledge. 2015.

Chatterjee, H. and Duhs, R. (2010) Object-based learning (OBL) in higher education (HE): pedagogical perspectives on enhancing student learning through collections. London: UCL, Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design (CETLD).

Dori YJ, Barak M: Virtual and physical molecular modeling: Fostering model perception and spatial understanding. Educational Technol Soc. 2001; 4(1): 61–74. 

Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough, M, Smith KM, Okoroafor N, Jordt, H, Wenderoth MP (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics PNAS 111 (23) 8410-8415

James, A.R. (2013). Lego Serious Play: a three-dimensional approach to learning development. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 6.

Hannan L, Chatterjee H, Duhs R: Object Based Learning: A powerful pedagogy for higher education. Museums and Higher Education Working Together: Challenges and Opportunities. ed. / Anne Boddington; Jos Boys; Catherine Speight. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013; 159–168.

Hardie K Innovative pedagogies series: Wow: The power of objects in object-based learning and teaching High Education Academy (Available from:

Romanek D, Lynch B: Touch and the Value of Object Handling: Final Conclusions for a New Sensory Museology. In Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Edited by H. J. Chatterjee. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2008.

Schönborn KJ, Anderson TR: The importance of visual literacy in the education of biochemists. Biochem Mol Biol Educ. 2006; 34(2): 94–102.

Smith DP. Active learning in the lecture theatre using 3D printed objects [version 2; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2016, 5:61 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.7632.2)


Teaching Controversy or The fine art of questioning everything

A strange thing happened last week. I opted to teach confusion and controversy to my Biochemistry students. My learning aim was simply:

students will gain an appreciation that scientific (if not all) understanding progresses through questioning” 

“To ask why”

The ability to question what we are told comes through confidence and understanding where the knowledge has come from in the first place. Confidence that the teller may not have considered every option and that the understanding is often built on assumption. What if one persons assumptions are different to another’s, would the understanding of that observation also be different.

The session started with a very simply question but the effect was magical “What colour is this dress?

Instantly we had the “it’s white and gold” no “it’s blue and black” argument break out. A great start as the question was pure observation, there was no wrong answer it was one or the other but both at the same time. It also played into past experience (it went viral after all) both are great ways to get a conversation started. Safe questions with no wrong answers. However, one question changed everything, “who sees both?” A few said they did. Then one student commented “it depends on the background”.

This was a fundamental shift in thinking for the group. Some people see blue and black or white and gold depending on the surrounding text and images in the web page they are viewing at the time. Our understanding and interpretation of an observation is brought about by our background knowledge and environment. If two students have different background knowledge and experiences their understanding will differ.

The session progressed and two view points were presented to the students both using very similar observations. (If you happened to be a Biochemist they were two native gels with the band in the same place). One published in Nature the other in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Both peer reviewed both by world leaders in the field and both that use almost identical data to draw polar opposite conclusions. A simply question was asked “who do you think is correct?“. At this point the students considered the two stand points, looked at the arguments presented by both groups and concluded that “it depends in the background of the experiments“. This one statement to me is what questioning is all about. What context or prior understanding is a statement or fact drawn from, on what background is this observation made, how does the background of the observation shape my understanding based on my past knowledge. How can I be sure it’s correct?

Ask why?

Notes from a HE Padlet wall

main picture

Adding value to teaching and support.
(how Padlet walls can be used in practice)

Padlet walls are the virtual equivalent of sticking post-it notes on a wall. However they are much richer than that allowing links, videos and files to be included. They can be used to gather content, to ask questions, to give support and to share resources. The walls can be used in real time during a teaching session or as pre and post support activities. They can even be embedded into Blackboard sites as this YouTube video describes

There are a large number of blogs and how to guilds talking about the mechanics of setting the walls up such as this blog by The CoolCatTeacher. Here I look at how they can be used to enhance teaching sessions and note some practical issues that can arise.

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PLAY: The path to discovery Or my Friday afternoon experiment

Creative Academic!

PLAY: The path to discovery Or my Friday afternoon experiment

I was recently asked to write an article for the creative academic magazine by Dr Chrissi Nerantzi (@chrissinerantzi). In it I explore how we in science use play as a play to new ideas. The article also explores how creativity can be introduced into undergraduate research projects.

The link is for the full article can be found  here and my text is below.

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Editing Wikipedia as a learning tool.

The situation!
I often set problem solving course work as part of my teaching. It puts the learning of the lectures into context and allows the students to apply the knowledge gained. It also has the benefit of demonstrating how they might use the core knowledge in the future.

First point of call. Very often the first step in these problem exercises is defining the key terms. Questions will be set as define X what is meant by Y. Like everyone else the first point if call is to “Google” the question and click the first link.

Enter Wikipedia!

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5 steps to keeping repeat sessions interesting

The same lab can run many times with the same staff member, the same tutorial needs to be delivered multiple times, the same lecture is repeated back-to-back. So how can we stay interested and make sure the learning objectives are met within in session? Each time you give the session you will be teaching a different group of students!  We can use the student interaction to add variety to the session.

1. Define your learning objective:
2. Plan the session to cover less than the entire period:
3. Introduce elements of active learning:
4. How to build interaction?
5. Talk with others.
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