The difference class size makes

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?

7 thoughts on “The difference class size makes

  1. Interesting experiment! I also wonder if the closeness of your 5-person class is a result of the more intense contact hours you’ve had with them (because it’s an accelerated course, almost like a summer class.) I’ve never taught on the block system (in which students take 8 one-month courses, one at a time, over the course of an academic year, instead of 4 courses per semester simultaneously.)

    I interviewed for a job once at an institution that was run on the block system, and I came away thinking that that level of intensity had some advantages but more disadvantages. (What about the synergy of taking both British history and British lit in the same term? How would a course on feminist anthropology taken at the same time as a course on women’s autobiography open up the other course, and vice-versa?) I thought too much was lost, and that ideas and themes wouldn’t have the appropriate time to marinate.

    But in the experiment you report, presumably the students are enrolled in a few other accelerated courses at the same time? Are they in both 8-week and 16-week courses simultaneously? So the isolation of subject matter wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

    BTW, great to visit with you last week! Let’s stay in touch.

  2. I teach statistics to scared first years a lot. Classes are the best at 16 and under. Classes are the worst when they hit more than 25 per section (and the badness seems to increase with increasing speed with each additional student until 40 or so, then it’s just all bad).

  3. In graduate school I taught a 4 person class once that was a complete disaster – partially because of scheduling and partially because the 4 students didn’t mesh well together and I wasn’t able to paper over that awkwardness. That said, the best class I’ve ever taught was a 6 person class that was just amazing in terms of the class community and the engagement and dedication to our topic. Both classes were regular semester-length courses. While I appreciate the smaller classes for the smaller grading load, I’m also very well aware of how student personalities are magnified and can be either the best or the worst.

    I’d say that the sweet spot for me would be 10-14 students per class, though I only get that in upper division courses (foreign language and literature).

  4. I had one section of Basic (i.e. remedial) Comp that hit the sweet spot, with an enrollment of eight students. (Well, nine technically, but there was one who pulled a disappearing act.) It was the only section of Basic that I’ve ever taught that didn’t make me want to kill myself. (Otherwise, the usual enrollment was 21 to 25 in the fall and four or five in the spring, both of which were awful in completely different ways — mostly because the spring sections usually included multiple disappearers, so there were quite a lot of days when only one person would show up.)

  5. To comment on the other issue, the why admin types are all gung ho about three year degrees: I think it’s coming down from on high, from the Feds and State folks. There’s the student loans for only 10 semesters thing (or is it 12?), which really hurts students who need to go only part time. And there’s the widespread dissemination of information about four year and six year degree rates. I think we sit at something like 25% of our students graduate in four years. We’re much better at six years. There are all sorts of reasons, including how much our students work, how much classes have been cut by state legislature budget cuts, and so on and so forth. But in the news our admins respond to, it’s all the schools’ faults, and we have to do something about it. Our admin responses tend to load on the curriculum and argue that we demand too much of students, have too many requirements, and have too many sequenced courses.

    And naturally, places where fewer students work, where people are more traditional, full-time students, and so on have better rates. And that includes just the places that pop to mind.

  6. A few years ago, I taught two different versions of the modern US history survey in the same semester at my state flagship. One had 35 students (three one-hour class meetings per week); the second had 250+ students (two one-hour class meetings, plus an additional hour of section meetings capped at 25 students, led by myself or one of two graduate TAs). The exams and writing assignments were identical, and all were graded anonymously. At the end of the semester, the average of students in the 35-student class was more than a full grade higher than those in the large class. I had expected a slight difference, but this result really shocked me.

  7. Ooh, Miriam, that’s some seriously telling evidence! Wow!

    Historiann – Nice to have seen you, too! And yeah, we’re doing this alongside regular classes. Basically, they’re trying to offer some ged ed classes on an 8-week schedule, but upper div classes are all still 16 weeks, and it’s only *some* of the gen ed classes. It sounds a little rough for the students to juggle, but we’ll see. I know from my end it seems like I’m teaching a 4-course load instead of a 3-course load, since I teach 3 classes on M/W and the other two meetings of the 8-week class on T/R, but after the midpoint in the semester, I’ll be down to 2. So maybe it’ll be like that for the students, too, unless they just replace my 8-week class with another one in the second half of the semester. And yes, I’m sure the closeness of the class is partly due to our having met 4 times already, but I don’t know if that would be true if there were 30 of them.

Add to the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s