The average teacher prefers small classes. However, there are times when the enrollment in a class that is usually big (however you define this) takes a dip in size and suddenly a class has become “small.” This can be harder to deal with than many people tend to believe. There are some aspects of the teaching and learning experience that need to be adjusted because the original approach is not user-friendly for the small class.
Another time when a person often struggles with teaching small classes is if they never had the pleasure of experiencing a small class as a student. If your learning experience was a traditional large class lecture style and all of a sudden you are teaching at a small liberal arts college there will need to be some adjustments too.
In this post, we will look at some pros and cons of teaching smaller classes at the tertiary level. In addition, we will look at some ways to address the challenges of teaching smaller classes for those who have not had this experience.
With a smaller class size there is an overall decrease in the amount of work that has to be done. This means few assignments to mark, less preparation of materials, etc. In addition, because the class is smaller it is not necessary to be as formal and structured with the class. In other words, there is no need to have routines in place because there is little potential chaos that can ensue if everyone does what they want.
The teaching can also be more personalized. You can adjust content and address individual question much easier than when dealing with a larger class. You can even get to know the students in a much more informal manner that is not possible in a large lecturer hall.
Probably the biggest advantage for a new teacher is the ability to make changes and adjustments during a semester. A bad teacher in a large class leads to a large problem. However, a bad teacher in a small class is a small problem. If things are not working, it is easier to change things in a small group. The analogy that I like to make is that it is easier to do an u-turn on a bike instead of in a bus. For new teachers who do not quite know how to teach, a smaller class can help them to develop their skills for larger classes
There are some challenges with small classes especially for people with a large class experience. One thing you will notice when teaching a large class is a lost of energy. If you are used to lecturing to 80 students and suddenly are teaching 12 it can seem as if that learning spark is gone.
The lost of energy can contribute to a lost of discipline. The informal nature of small classes can lead to students having a sense seriousness about the course. In larger classes there is a sense of “sink or swim”. This may not be the most positive mindset but it helps people to take the learning experience seriously. In smaller classes this can sometimes be lost.
Attendance is another problem. In a large class having several absences is not a big deal. However, if your class is small, several absences is almost like a plague that wipes out a village. You can still teach but nobody is there or the key people who participate in the discussion are not there or there is no one to listen to their comments. This can lead to pressure to cancel class which causes even more problems.
There are several things that a teacher can do to have success with smaller class sizes. One suggestion is to adjust your teaching style. Lecturing is great for large classes in which content delivery is key. However, in smaller class a more interact, discussion-like approach can be taken. This helps to bring energy back to the classroom as well as engage the students.
Sometimes, if this is possible, changing from a large room to a smaller one can help to bring back the energy that is lost when a class is smaller. Many times the academic office will put class in a certain classroom regardless of size. This normally no longer a problem with all the advances in scheduling and registration software. However, if you are teaching 10 students in an auditorium perhaps it is possible to find a smaller more intimate location.
Another way to deal with smaller classes is through increasing participation. This is often not practical in a large class. However, interaction can be useful in increasing the engagement.
The size of the class is not as important as the ability of the teacher to adjust to it in order to help students to learn. Small classes need a slightly different approach than traditional large classes at university. With a few minor adjustments, a teacher can still find ways to help students even if the class is not quite the size everyone was expecting