Thoughts on how class size affects my teaching

When I was an undergraduate art education major student teaching in an urban high school, there were 42 students enrolled in one section of Art 1. Despite the fact there were only about 27 stools in the room, my cooperating teacher and I pressed on. We (with the permission of my university supervisor) spent the majority of the semester team-teaching, one of us handling the administrative tasks like taking attendance and signing papers and the other facilitating the learning activities we had planned.

That was 2003. Between 2003 and 2011 I have taught students ages 6-70, in all sorts of classes, institutions, arrangements, and circumstances. Now, in 2011, I am about to begin teaching my smallest class ever. The course is an art education methods course at a small private university and I have two students enrolled, one pursuing an MAT and one pursuing an undergraduate degree.

I recently began thinking about how my teaching changes depending on the number of students enrolled in each class. Studies that have looked at the effects of class size on teaching suggest that classes with fewer students result in more individualized attention, more active student participation, and less group work (Blatchford, Russell, Bassett, Brown, & Martin, 2007).

I have found that when I teach large classes, I spend a lot of time on administrative tasks (attendance, entering grades, filling out student athlete progress reports, reserving computer labs, etc.). Those administrative tasks seem to disappear when you have 5 or less students. Last year I taught a class of 5 students and when we needed computers we simply went to the lab that was open down the hall. There were always five open seats, so there was no reason to reserve it.

When I teach smaller classes, I spend significantly more time giving students feedback via email, comments on their assignments, and planning class time. In general, my class becomes much more student-centered, and my syllabus feels more like a sketch than a framed piece of art.

The smaller class sizes of late have raised a few questions in my mind:

  • How might my facilitation of class discussions need to change based on the number of students?
  • How comfortable am I teaching a course of 3 or 4 quiet students who don’t freely verbalize their thoughts? Am I comfortable with silence?
  • How does having a handful of students change my ideas about appropriate activities for face-to-face class time vs. out of class work?
  • (How) do the expectations of my students change when they are in a small class?

I do know that some of my students have appreciated the smaller class size. This past semester I had three students enrolled in an educational technology class. In a course reflection statement, one of my students wrote,

With only two classmates, I found this course to be engaging and individualized. Throughout my college career, until this semester, I have not verbally contributed to class discussions, as they were mostly larger classes. With only four of us in the classroom each week, I was more confident and open to sharing my ideas with my classmates and instructor.

I hope that all of my students feel confident and open to share ideas regardless of class size, but I recognize that class size will affect them just like it affects me. The size of my classes drastically changes my preparation, class structure, and ability to give feedback to students.

Blatchford, P., Russell, A., Bassett, P., Brown, P., and Martin, C. (2007). The effect of class size on the teaching of pupils aged 7–11 years. School Effectiveness and Improvement, 18(2), 147–172 (2007, June).