September 2nd, 2015

Four Key Questions About Large Classes

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Four Key Questions About Large Classes

Here’s a set of questions about large classes that I’m thinking we ought to be discussing more than we are.

1. How many students make it a large class? Teachers who do and don’t teach large classes have their opinions, but it’s not clear who has the right answer. Often faculty views seem related to the size of their college or university. I once consulted at a small liberal arts college where I was asked to sign a petition against classes enrolling more than 35 students. At about the same time, I saw a list of the 10 courses most often taken by beginning students at my R1 university. Only two—English composition and physical education—enrolled fewer than 30 students, and most had many more.

More important than faculty opinions are their perceptions. If you think it’s a large class, chances are good you’ll teach it that way. I’ve observed classes with 35 students being taught as if the enrollment were closer to 350, and I’ve seen very large classes that looked and felt like they were being taught to 30 students. Teaching Professor Blog

2. Who should be taking large classes? We know who typically takes them—students in their first two years of college. The largest classes at most institutions are introductory-level survey courses that fulfill general education requirements, gateway courses to majors, or first courses in a degree program. In those classes, beginning students often don’t know many or any of their classmates. These are the courses where the most lecturing occurs and where it’s very difficult for faculty to establish relationships with their students. How well do these courses meet the learning needs of beginning students? Do we ever we consider the possibility of offering a large class to more experienced students who might be better equipped to cope with these learning environments?

3. What content is best suited for delivery in a big class? Of course, that’s a question best answered by those who know the content. But I’m not sure it’s a question we ever discuss. Is it foundational material, those disciplinary building blocks? Is it material that students can master on their own without much teacher involvement? Is it content that’s not really up for discussion? Is there more of the kind of content that works in large classes in some fields than others?

4. Who should be teaching the large classes? At many institutions, these introductory or first major courses are traditionally considered less desirable teaching assignments. They are often handed over to the new or beginning faculty who then work their way up to teaching more highly prized courses, including those in their areas of specialty.

Large classes are more difficult to teach than small ones, especially if you’re committed to active learning, classroom interaction, assignments that develop skills like writing, and testing practices that promote thinking more than memorization. They’re also more difficult because the classroom management issues grow right along with class size. So, if these courses are more difficult to teach, should they be assigned to those new to teaching and/or to the institution?

Are they good places for adjunct, continuing contract faculty, or for teachers hired for the express purpose of teaching them? Some think large classes are the perfect venue for charismatic teachers, those who’ve mastered (and often relish) the performance aspects of teaching. These are teachers who keep students attentive, but how well do these dramatic styles promote deep learning and intellectual skill development?

I’m pretty solidly against big classes and the kinds of learning experiences they typically provide, but I’m also a realist, so this post is raising questions about the best ways to deal with them. Do we examine our use of large classes as critically and creatively as we should? A lot of what we do in higher education, we do because that’s what everyone else is doing. I think large classes are a case in point. They’re a fact of life in higher education, and their existence is not something most of us are in a position to change, but many decisions about how they’re taught are under our control. What we decide isn’t trivial. It impacts the learning experiences of large numbers of students.


  • Jennifer Drexler

    I think these are excellent questions to raise! And I have honestly not considered some of these questions before. However, I believe that understanding the importance of student engagement and teaching effectiveness are of utmost important in large classes. I have 90-120 students a semester (on ground classes), with my cap being set at 90 or 100 students and I often let more in up to room capacity. Creative teaching and assignments that add value to the learning is one way I make the most of my large class. I use additional technology and an assignment that spans the semester to keep those students on topic and engaged. Having fun and being silly I have found keeps my class full, despite the fact I do not take attendance. Although impossible to learn every students name, I make an effort to be approachable and available to those students in need. I see it as coaching them for further coursework they will experience, and providing helpful hints along the way. I do agree with a cap on distance and online learning as the learner may feel excluded or flounder, often requiring much more support than the face-to-face student. Thank you for bringing up these questions on an important topic to me!!.

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  • Have a look at this meta-analysis which indicates that the student learning outcomes are better in small classes:

    Cuseo, J. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. The Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), 5–21.
    http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/nfp/jfd/200

    • Jennifer Drexler

      Of course…understandable. Thanks for sharing, have many article on student engagement to add this too!! Have done quite a bit of searching for transitioning from high school to college…appreciate the article.

  • Paula Grace Anderson

    Greetings! Large classes, with even larger or longer grading times implied, are dangerous to all concerned. Even experienced teachers usually feel overwhelmed by all that is involved, in order to do justice to our ever-increasing classes and students. But how do we do justice to ourselves, as humans, not teaching machines, at the same time? And did the administrators, who support really large classes as financial problem-solvers, ever teach, or attend, such groups, themselves? There are many ironies involved, here, surely …