Bigger classes better?

Everybody seems to agree that smaller class sizes are better. But there is an interesting study showing that generally the better business schools have BIGGER class sizes. Of course, correlation does not prove causality, but it does seem to indicate that bigger class sizes don’t hurt.

Teacher quality is important. It is probably better to have a great professor even if you have to share the class with a few more students than to have a small number of students led by a mediocre teacher.

We also can deploy technology. Why should the professor deliver a live lecture at all? Might it not be better for the students to watch the lecture on their computers and then show up for a discussion with the live person?

We have to get over this idea that small classes are always better. It is an old fashioned concept based on old fashioned learning styles. Some things are better learned with a few people; others not.

I sometimes give lectures at colleges. My style is highly interactive, and you might think that this would work well in small groups, but I find that a larger class is often better because there are more participants to contribute ideas. Beyond that, the students tend to feel less inhibited when there is "safety in numbers." A smaller class can often develop a bad group dynamic, where people play an expected role and have a hard time breaking out of it.

Small classes tend to be favored by teachers because they find it easier, and favored by teachers unions because they increase employment. But I think it might be better to invest in quality rather than quantity.

Posted by Christine & John at November 1, 2012 7:23 PM
Comment #356161

“Small classes tend to be favored by teachers because they find it easier, and favored by teachers unions because they increase employment. But I think it might be better to invest in quality rather than quantity.”

C & J,
You say that you give lectures at colleges. Are you a teacher? Have you ever taught in a K-5 classroom? If so, you would not make this argument.

You make it sound as if teachers want smaller class sizes simply because they want to make their jobs easier.

In one sense you are right, but for the wrong reason. It truly is easier for teachers to identify students who may be struggling with a concept in a smaller class. The quicker the teacher can identify the students who are struggling, the better it is for the students.

Quality over quantity? How about both. You can have Jack Nicklaus teaching a golf class, but if there are 40 students in the class it is not going to have that much of an impact. You shrink that class size down to 10 and he can spend time identifying each student’s weakness and try to correct it.

The exchange of ideas is important in teaching. Students can share ideas and think about and reflect on what others have said. There has to be a balance, however. I have taught in a third grade class with class sizes of 34 and that of 19. Was it easier in the class of 19?

My answer would be that we were able to accomplish much more in the smaller class, therefore benefiting the students. It wasn’t easier, it was that we were able to dig deeper into concepts than we were with a class of 34.

Posted by: T at November 1, 2012 8:43 PM
Comment #356163

Large classes only work if the students have already developed the study habits needed to cope. Universities get away with this because students supposedly have already obtained such habits in high school. If a student doesn’t have drive or motivation, he or she simply gets lost in the crowd and falls behind/drops out. This is acceptable at the tertiary level because it is supposedly the final stage of education, but I find it hard to imagine such a system being used with anyone under the age of 16. I guess our high schools might adopt larger class sizes for juniors & seniors, but that is all.

We also can deploy technology. Why should the professor deliver a live lecture at all? Might it not be better for the students to watch the lecture on their computers and then show up for a discussion with the live person?
This is basically how my organic chemistry course was taught. The material was presented initially in our textbook as well as in supplemental materials provided by our instructor. The supplemental materials were either text or video recorded by the instructor. We completed the week’s problem set before even encountering the material in “lecture”. The “lectures” were formatted more like review sessions where we simply practiced problem solving based on the concepts taught in the previous week’s problem set. These lectures featured interactive polls of the class, which consisted of roughly 1000 students.

In my opinion, there is still a danger associated with medium-sized classes (40-60 students). At that size, there is little chance for personal interaction with the instructor, but the instructors do not attempt to cater their lectures to the large class size. Typically, these classes are held in ordinary classrooms rather than lecture halls, which can also make it difficult to follow what is going on up front if one has the misfortune of showing up after all the seats in the front are taking.

Posted by: Warped Reality at November 1, 2012 8:51 PM
Comment #356164
It truly is easier for teachers to identify students who may be struggling with a concept in a smaller class.

This is a good point that tells us the difference between education at the primary and tertiary levels. At the primary level, the teacher is responsible for identifying students who are falling behind and to provide such students with extra support. This sort of responsibility is not appropriate at the tertiary level where students are expected to be mature enough to self-diagnose their problems and seek out help on their own such as by utilizing the professor’s office hours.

Posted by: Warped Reality at November 1, 2012 8:55 PM
Comment #356166


Only colleges and sometimes HS. Of course, I am also exceptionally entertaining so I can hold their attention.

I take your point, but I think the point remains re quality. Is it better to have a good teacher working a class of 30 or a couple of poor teachers each doing 15? When we find good teachers, might it not be better to give them more? Of course, also pay them more and give access to technology.

Re college courses, we do need to figure something out. Maybe we pay some people too much. I hear Elizabeth Warren gets more than $200,000 to teach one class and she seems to have lots of time for other stuff.

Posted by: C&J at November 1, 2012 9:08 PM
Comment #356193

C&J, I know this is a bit off topic but I also know how you like to keep up with the economist.

Posted by: j2t2 at November 2, 2012 1:28 AM
Comment #356199


Yeah, I saw. I take seriously articles in the Economist, but I have a little different point of view. It is not ringing endorsement of Obama, as you know. I mean, what they are saying is that Obama doesn’t deserve to be reelected but that they don’t trust Romney.

I see their point, but I believe that the Romney that we have seen since the debates is qualitatively different. I know you guys see this as “flip-flop”. I see it as him coming home. IMO, Romney will reach out to the center and to even the left. He has a history of doing this.

I don’t mean this as a polemic - but I really do not think Obama is up to being president and his cabinet is not very good. I like Hilary more than I did four years ago, but her vision is mostly on things like women’s advancement and LGBT rights. These are important issues, but should not, IMO, be the big emphasis of foreign policy. Vilsak is great, but Dept of Agriculture is pushing racial justice at the expense of growing more food or protecting soils. Holder is a disaster.

I guess my big complaint against Obama is maybe what many liberals like. I think that he is pushing rights agendas for particular groups. I am morally opposed to treating people as members of any permanent group other than Americans.

The other problem I have with liberals in general, and Obama is liberal, is their belief that government CAN actually run the show. This goes to my basic idea about how things work. I make it my goal with my staff to do LESS. I try not to attend meetings. I am slow to answer emails. I was traveling for four days and I left my people alone, only monitoring w/o comment except for things I absolutely needed to do. I do this because it INCREASED our effectiveness. My colleagues take responsibly; they feel and they ARE empowers. Do they work to my plan all the time? No they do not. Usually they do better than I could have directed them. My biggest caution to them is to work with our partners w/o trying to take too much credit. I tell everyone that their goal should not be to achieve success but to deserve it. All this seems to me very “unliberal”. I believe in the virtue of inaction in many situations where my liberal friends think government should be moving.

In order of action, if you can do it yourself, do it. If it is too big for you or you don’t have the competence, do it in voluntary associations; next go to local authorities, then state then Federal. Most things should not become Federal cases. Beyond that, many problems cannot be “solved” to everyone’s satisfaction. Government can create a pernicious illusion of omnipotence. It is often better to tolerate bad situations than to make them worse by getting Federal authorities involved. Shit happens and it is not always anybody’s fault or correctable by actions we can take.

Do Republicans live up to my goals? Certainly they do not. I don’t live up to my goals myself. But I get very nervous when politicians think they CAN plan far ahead. I think it is the right of Americans NOT to think about politics very much. I think lots of people being politically active is a sign of a weak society, not a strong one. The best leadership creates conditions where they people can do things for themselves. Republicans do not live up to this, but at least their ostensible goals are closer.

Posted by: C&J at November 2, 2012 5:47 AM
Comment #356206

On Schools:

I had small class sizes but the school was tiny and underfunded so my education was poor. That I went to college was in spite of my highschool and not because of it. Early on they asked me what I wanted (as if I should know) and after that put me in lower level math and science and geared me toward some vocational or community college education. My last year of school I realized I needed college so I bulked up on slightly more advanced math but I still started college way behind. But hey, what’s another year of college and thousands more in debt? So I’d have taken bigger class sizes if it meant I’d have had more attentive counselors and people who treated us less like cattle down a chute.

On the subject of the Economist article I find this line about Romney particularly telling:

Backing business is important, but getting the macroeconomics right matters far more.

The Economist sees through Romney’s empty suit on the economics front and it worries them. They don’t buy that he’s just saying these crazy things to get elected then he’ll do sensible things once elected. The policies he calls for will drive up the debt trillions more.

Posted by: Adam Ducker at November 2, 2012 8:24 AM
Comment #356207

This final paragraph is good too:

For all his businesslike intentions, Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says. That is not a convincing pitch for a chief executive. And for all his shortcomings, Mr Obama has dragged America’s economy back from the brink of disaster, and has made a decent fist of foreign policy. So this newspaper would stick with the devil it knows, and re-elect him.

Obama is critically weak on multiple fronts and could have been put away had the GOP elected a different candidate. Instead they get the Mittmentum who is losing badly in the state polls but his supporters have ignored reality and pretend instead Romney is headed for a landslide. Why? Because every poll is biased and historically wrong in a way that is not entirely unprecedented but still a very rare thing.

Posted by: Adam Ducker at November 2, 2012 8:29 AM
Comment #356306

Class size may not matter for college students…but it would be ridiculous to compare college students with elementary students. Class size is EXTREMELY important in elementary schools and regardless of what political affiliation you are, hopefully you can see that.

Posted by: Jacquelyn F. Gerlach at November 2, 2012 10:52 PM
Comment #356908

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