Four Key Questions About Large Classes

This post was written by Maryellen Weimer and originally published by Magna Publications.

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.

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.

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