I may come back and revise this after I’ve taught more than one week of classes this semester, but so far, I’ve seen a striking difference in the two sections of gen-ed poetry I teach, and I think a lot of it has to do with class size. One class is an experimental 8-week section that meets four times a week, and so I’ve essentially taught two weeks of it already; the other is a conventional 16-week class that meets twice a week, so I’ve only seen them twice. But still, I’m seeing differences in the two classes and what the students and I can accomplish in them, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the 8-week class has only 5 students in it, while the 16-week class has 33. (NB: normally the administration wouldn’t let a 5-person class run, but the whole 8-week thing is part of a program the dean and higher admins are keen about, because it’s meant to allow students to get three-year degrees, so they’re letting the small enrollments slide. Why they’re all gung-ho about three-year degrees, since our students pay per credit hour and not per academic year, I don’t quite understand. [Edited to add: Which is not to criticize the program — I’m just expressing my puzzlement.] I guess it saves students a year of opportunity costs? [ETA: Bullock tells me they actually worked out a tuition savings, too. OK, now I get it.] So far it doesn’t seem very popular, but maybe it will grow?)
Anyway, the five students and I in the 8-week class are so far digging deeper into the poems we discuss. We get further with them than we do in the bigger class. Part of that is because this is a self-selecting group of ambitious students, I’m sure. But it’s also because with only six of us in the room, people are quicker and more willing to speak up, conversation is a little less intimidating — it’s conversation and not discussion, in a way — and so things move faster. And in this class we already know each other and feel comfortable with each other — I can tell you all their names and majors! — and the students talk to each other. This means already if one of them thinks the other is a little misguided in how they’re interpreting something, they’ll actually jump in and gently respond to the misguided reader (and then I can say, “So and so is right” if the misguided student doesn’t buy it). If the other students are doing some of the correcting and not me (except to reinforce it), the misguided person is less intimidated, and continues to talk later — they don’t do that shutting down thing. So conversation continues apace. Or they reach different but equally valid interpretations of something, and they are not afraid to say so — that gives me a “teaching moment” to talk about interpretative ambiguity, the possibility of different readings, etc.
Now, there are plenty of students capable of this in the other section, too. In fact, I can tell I’ve got some really sharp students in there. But I also get the sense that I’ve got students getting lost already. But I’m not really sure, since they don’t talk and I haven’t given a quiz or paper assignment yet. And no one talks to each other — they face forward and talk to me. I can encourage them to respond to each other, but it’s not going to happen as easily, naturally, or quickly as it has already in the other class. Meanwhile, in the other class, I know exactly who is really getting things and who might be struggling a little bit more just from our conversations, and I even know the different things they struggle with. Since *everyone* talks, I’m getting a sense of where they all are already, after only 4 class meetings.
Now, I’ll sooner or later understand where each student is in the bigger class, but they won’t get the personal attention that the 5 students in the other class will get. Yes, I’ll spend the same amount of time on each student’s papers and other assignments in both classes, but it’ll be spread out over time, and have less of an impact than the personal attention that happens daily in the smaller class. And yes, I can do things to make smaller units in the big class — group work and the like — but it won’t be as sustained as the class that’s essentially a small break-out group every day, and I won’t be able to observe every small group all the time, as I can with the small class.
I’m not saying that all college classes should be 5-person classes. I know that’s not realistic. But I think those schools that advertise their small classes are absolutely right to do so, and I think it’s a “feature” worth paying a premium for if you’re a bill-paying parent or student. This isn’t really news to me (or to you, I assume) — I’ve seen the difference from one class to another because I teach a range of classes, from MA seminars to big general ed classes — but this is the first time I’ve had two sections of the same exact course with such different enrollments. So far the effects of those enrollments are subtle, but they’re noticeable. We’ll see how things pan out by the end of the semester. Maybe the other class will catch up, or maybe the small class will always get something more out of the class.
Have you ever had substantially different enrollments across two different sections (or terms) of the same course? Did you see a difference?