Large Classes Are Not Always Bad

By Dr Mike Atkinson 

The dreaded first-year university course.  At most large universities, enrolment can range from 50 students to over 1000 students in a single classroom—and there may be multiple sections of the course, all with huge numbers of students.  Surely, this must be a horrible experience for the students. After all, who can learn in a class of 1,000?

Large university classes have been the norm for at least the past 40 years.  When I was an undergraduate taking first-year psychology at Dalhousie University (in 1971), I was in a class of about 200 students.  My first-year sociology course had 800 students in the classroom. My smallest class that year was calculus with an enrolment of about 30.  Large classes are certainly not new. However, they seem to have a reputation as rather “bad” courses. Indeed, Maclean’s magazine uses class size as a negative indicator of quality in their annual rating of universities.  Are large classes really that awful?

According to Reece McGee (1991), there are a lot of myths surrounding the large class.   Here are two that come up quite often.

Large classes are inherently inferior to small classes.   If you reflect on your own education, I’m sure that you will remember some very good large classes and some rather poor small classes.  The quality of classroom instruction does not always go hand in hand with class size. There are factors that make the teaching of large classes more difficult, but a good instructor will engage students regardless of class size.  Much of the research regarding the influence of class size on learning has been conducted at the grade school level. There does seem to be a noticeable difference in learning between classes of about 15-20 students and classes of 25-30 students.   After 30, it does not really seem to matter. Thus, the real issue is not class size, but rather the quality of instruction that takes place.

Good large class instructors are merely entertainers.  Is there anything wrong with teaching in an entertaining fashion?   Not at all. In fact, I would argue that it is essential to be “entertaining” in an extremely large class in order to maximize attention.  A problem arises, however, if entertainment is the only goal—stage presence must go hand-in-hand with pedagogy in order to be effective. Large class instructors who are consistently rated as very good or excellent are, in fact, entertaining.  But it is also the case that their students learn more in the classroom (Murray, 1997).

Sure there can be problems with large classes. 

Students may be more anonymous. There can be a sense that the class is not as challenging as it might be. It may be the case that students get lost in the shuffle because there are so many for the instructor to deal with.  But none of this is inevitable. With adequate preparation on behalf of the instructor, large classes can be a very valuable educational experience.   In fact, there are actually some advantages to large classes. For example, the technology available in a large, smart classroom is much more sophisticated than what might be available in a smaller room.  The instructor may use dual projectors with dual computers to present a combination of text, video, and images. The audio system available in a large lecture hall is usually of much higher quality than in a smaller room.  And most importantly, universities can make a conscious decision to put their best instructors in large first-year classes. In this way, more students can experience the highest quality instruction available.

I have taught first-year psychology at Western to classes ranging in size from 200 to 1,220.  Many students comment that my large classes actually feel “smaller” than most of their other courses—even ones with enrolments of less than 100.  How is this possible? By reducing the psychological size of the class. I use a fast-paced multimedia format to maximize attention. I move around the room and actually make eye contact with the students.  I am available to talk with students for about 45 minutes before class and another 30 minutes after class (in addition to office hours). I have my TAs attend class and monitor a live in-class chat. In this way, students can ask the TA for clarification during class if they did not get a chance to ask me a question.  I encourage students to talk to me in person (during class and outside of class), by email, or by phone. I push students to present me with challenging questions and I try to keep the material I present as engaging as possible. I call students by their names whenever I can. All of these behaviours help to reduce the perceived size of the class and present the students with a high-quality educational experience.

How can you tell if a particular first-year class at a particular university is a “good” one?

Do some research. Find out how the university you’re interested in stacks up in the annual Globe and Mail Report Card.  See who is consistently rated as a top professor in the Maclean’s review. Go to ratemyprofessors.com and search for the instructors of first-year classes.  Let other students tell you what they think of the class and the professor.  Check out the discussion forums at studentawards.com.  If the class you’re interested in is not on the forum, create your own thread.

Large classes are not necessarily bad classes—quality education can occur in any size classroom.  But don’t just take my word for it; talk to the students who have taken these courses. They will give you the best advice.

Mike Atkinson, Psychology Department, University of Western Ontario, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.

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