Class Size and Teaching

Dr. Crazy has a post in response to Tenured Radical’s post about class size and its effect on one’s ability to teach, and, more importantly, students’ ability to learn.  I have a couple of responses to both posts, and some to the comments.  I’ll try to make them coherent.  One benefit of being an adjunct is that I’ve seen lots of different kinds of institutions: large state schools, mid-sized private religious schools, small liberal arts colleges, small discipline-focused schools.  And in my work as a consultant and technologist, I’ve seen and met faculty from many other kinds of schools.  So I’ve seen lots of variations on class size.  When I started teaching, 20 years ago now, my freshmen comp classes were capped at 18.  I taught an 8 a.m. class, and I think I ended up with 14 or 15.  It was a dream class.  I still cite some of my successes in that class.  After that first year, the cap was raised to 22, and that’s been my experience at almost everywhere I’ve taught, 22 is the cap.  The reality often depends on the time of day or other factors.  22 students is manageable, but getting hard to manage.  It’s easy to lose track of a student or two when you have 22 or more.  With 18, or fewer, those students don’t get lost.  You can prod them, draw them back into the fold, so to speak, with a comment after class or an email.

It’s also true, as Dr. Crazy points out, that when you have more students and therefore more papers to grade, you tend to cut corners.  Your feedback is much shorter.  You drop a paper.  You substitute a multiple choice test for an essay test.  I’ve actually never done that, either because there were strict requirements or because I only had 2 classes and no other work outside of that, so it didn’t seem necessary.  But I’ve seen plenty of people do it, and when I’ve considered positions with 4-4 loads and thought about the amount I normally assign, I shudder.  88 5-8 page papers to grade every couple of weeks is not something one whips through.  One could stagger and have 44 papers every week, but it’s all the same.  It’s hard to figure out how to teach well under these conditions.  I’m amazed at the many faculty who do.   But these conditions, and the continued ratcheting up of class caps so that the college can enroll more students and take their tuition money, raise the issue of how much these institutions really value teaching.  Dr. Crazy hits the nail on the head:

As much as we are a “teaching institution,” our institution doesn’t appear to value teaching all that much. The institution definitely values student enrollments and retention, but that is not at all the same thing as valuing teaching or valuing learning. It is entirely the case that one can do a piss-poor job in the classroom and as long as the enrollments remain stable that one will be just fine at this institution. It is entirely the case that one can be a crap adviser of student research projects and that one’s crappy work counts (or doesn’t) exactly the same as somebody who does a great job with such duties. And my administration has absolutely no interest in changing this from being the case. It would wreak havoc on the budgetary bottom line if they did.

My graduate institution, or at least my department, valued teaching.  They were constantly fighting the administration to keep class caps low.  They provided instruction and mentoring to graduate students on how to teach well.  There was an attitude in the department that teaching was important work and that doing it well was as important as research.  At almost every place I’ve been since, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Every place I’ve been has given lip-service to being invested in teaching, but the reality has been quite different.  Sometimes, it shows up in class size.  Other times, it’s apparent in the percentage of classes taught by adjuncts (over 50% at one place I worked).  At others, it’s in what gets someone tenure, almost always not teaching.  That’s left me with the distinct impression that if you care about teaching, don’t teach college.

And that’s not to say that I haven’t seen individual faculty who care about teaching at these institutions.  I have.  I’ve seen lots.  Some of them are off the tenure track.  Some of them are tenured.  Most work hard without much recognition except for accolades from their students.  Few, if any, of these institutions had rewards for teaching.

Now, I want to address the relationship of technology to all of this.  Historann commented, “What you need to do at Zenith is demonstrate conclusively that clickers, or iPhone apps, or some other gadget-of-the-moment will make it possible to give 100 students the same educational benefit that a seminar for 6, or 8, or 10, would give them.”  I bristled at this, both because it’s somewhat true, but also because it’s not true for many ed tech people.  Yes, there’ve been many articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed touting the benefits of using technology X in a large lecture class.  They claim the students are more engaged, blah, blah, blah.  The research on these things is very new, but I haven’t seen any research claiming that technology can make 100 person class as effective as a small seminar.  Technology cannot change a class dynamic.  As a technologist, I’m constantly lumped in with the people who tout the wonders of lecture capture and Blackboard and clickers and applications that send grades instantly to iPhones.  I’m not that kind of technology person.  My classes are relatively low-tech, though I do use blogs and wikis (for more writing practice, among other reasons) and I often use a multimedia assignment, video, images, etc. to teach multimedia writing and critical thinking.  When I work with faculty, I don’t want them to use technology to make their teaching efficient.  I want them to use it to in ways that help their students learn better.  I believe that sometimes the use of technology can kill two birds with one stone.  It can teach students the content or the skills of the course (i.e. history or writing), but it can also teach them something about the technology itself.  Sometimes they learn how to use a new tool, and sometimes they learn that a tool is put together in a way to generate a specific effect.  That is, technology isn’t neutral.  To me, learning more than one thing at once is a win-win.

In my recent work with K-12 teachers, technology isn’t discussed (at least not by teachers; I don’t know about administrators) as a way to cram 300 students into a class and still get similar results to a 30 student class.  It’s discussed as a way to engage students, to provide hands-on problem-solving work, to give them more writing practice (sometimes for a real audience), and to teach them technology skills by working with specific tools.  The standards for K-12 use of technology emphasize using technology to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, to learn information literacy skills, to learn to work with data and present results, to foster creativity and innovation, to learn collaboration skills, and to learn complex thinking skills.  Often, when I see technology discussed among administrators and faculty at the college level, these skills are not mentioned.*  It’s almost always either feared as a potential replacement for the faculty–teach via Blackboard and video lecture! Or touted as a way to bring enhancements to a large lecture class, enhancements that may make parents feel better about having their kids in large classes, but aren’t likely to produce the results of a seminar class.  So, I just want to say, quit blaming the technology.  If administrators are touting it incorrectly or poorly, don’t just resist using it, move them away from clickers and lecture capture toward allowing faculty to use blogs and wikis or YouTube or whatever might work for them.  Resist the cookie-cutter model, both for technology and for teaching.

*Not all faculty, of course.  Some get that technology can do all these things.  Unfortunately, many CIOs and other administrators seem to tout the “efficiency” of technology, rather than its benefits to learning.

3 Replies to “Class Size and Teaching”

  1. With all the talk in Washington about the value of an education, there seems to be a mismatch between the ideal of “college for everyone” and support for teaching and learning. I taught adjunct one semester at a private institution, where my two classes were capped at 40 each. At the beginning of the term, little aware of the consequences, I waived the cap to allow extra students in. Through attrition, I still had 78 by semester’s end.

    My suggestion to the administration that the courses be capped at 20 and split into two sections each, and that I be hired full-time to teach all four sections was unhesitatingly rebuffed. Hence my resignation. The contract declared that the instructor was to be engaged for “no more than 16 hours per week”. After 6 hours in class instruction, and say 6 hours of lecture prep (a very conservative estimate), that leaves about 3 minutes per student per week. Not exactly sufficient to encourage and stimulate learning. No amount of technology will change that dynamic.

    If we truly support education in this nation, the first step is to increase the number of faculty. It’s not just on Wall St. that there’s a misaligned compensation system. With tuition growing, where does the money go? It’s certainly not going to support a sufficient supply of faculty.

  2. I agree, and that point was made by Dr. Crazy and Tenured Radical, though iirc, TR had more hopes of getting that to happen at her school, being an elite private school. I’m teaching one class that meets 2 hours/day, 4 days/week. I can put in anywhere from 1/2 hour – over 2 hours of prep per class. It very much depends on how much of a foundation I have in the topic at hand. Luckily, I only have four students, so grading is a snap. In theory, I think I’m supposed to be working about 12-15 hours/week. Some weeks that works out. Some, it goes way over. And don’t even get me started on compensation. I’m being paid the going rate, but it’s way below what I’m worth. And I know if I were paid just a little more, I’d probably put more into the class.

  3. As an undergrad student at a large university, I attended a couple of classes with 500 students and other classes with 250 students. I learned what I was supposed to at those classes but many students did not. We were barred from approaching the professors with questions outside of class. Instead, we were supposed to track down very ellusive and overworked TAs. I transferred to a much smaller university for my final year and enjoyed the classes with 10 to 20 students. Today, that large university relies on extensive use of technology on to increase class size even more. This is a disservice to those students who struggle with the complex science topics.

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