Friday, 28 August 2015

What it takes to teach a large class – and do it well

You don’t have to suffer from glossophobia to hyperventilate at the thought of standing up in front of a large hall full of people. Many university lecturers dread the thought of teaching a large class. That’s because teaching large classes is hard. It can be scary and stressful, and it takes a lot of time and preparation.

Adding to all of that stress, large classes also don’t have a good reputation when it comes to fostering student learning. We know that students struggle in these contexts to stay engaged, to perform well and to develop important skills like critical thinking.

But large classes are a reality in many developed and developing countries. They form part of the drive towards the massification of higher education.

So what is a “large class”? It can’t be defined by a numerical threshold: instead, it’s a context where student learning is negatively impacted by the number in a class. Large classes have different meanings in different disciplines. A biology class may have more than 800 students before it’s considered “large”, while a sculpture course may be classified as “large” with 20 students.

There are two dominant logics that drive the emergence of large classes in higher education. The first is about efficiency, and suggests that large classes will result in increased revenue and decreased costs to the “system”.

The second is a progressive logic which argues that higher education is key to resolving problems of poverty, inequality and economic development. To do this, access to higher education needs to be increased.

Neither of these logics places student learning front and centre. Nor do they consider how student learning might be negatively affected. How can we address this?

I don’t think we can solve the challenges of large classes outright – but we can attempt to mitigate their negative effects by adopting strategies that we know are good for student learning and generally good for speaking to large groups. Here are some things that may work, based on research I’ve conducted and recently published in book form.

1) Treat your large class like it is a small class. Small classes are great for learning because they allow interaction, discussion and debate. Yet many lecturers actively try to avoid this in large class scenarios. This avoidance is usually justified through concerns about “managing” and “controlling” students. Lecturers argue that a class may become unwieldy if students are allowed to speak. But unwieldiness can be avoided by properly structuring the interaction moment.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Why small is beautiful when it comes to class sizes

It has been suggested by think-tank Reform that there is no link between class sizes, or the use of teaching assistants and achievement in pupils. It’s a seductive argument for anyone looking to cut spending. The ring fence around education, says Reform’s report, is not justified by better outcomes.

Reform’s conclusions are similar to those in several high-profile and widely cited reports from OECD, McKinsey, Grattan Institute and Brookings.

But ask any teacher about whether class size matters and they will tell you that of course a smaller class allows for better teaching and learning. Ask them whether having a teaching assistant in the classroom is beneficial and it’s highly likely they will say they are a great help.

So who is right? How do we reconcile these two different perspectives – the practitioner and policy perspectives? Are teachers wrong, as some commentators imply?

Statisticians don’t teach in schools

To take class size first, it is striking how much recent reports base their conclusions on three sources of data: cross-country comparisons, meta analyses and econometric analysis. All of these, I believe, only offer a partial view and are therefore flawed as evidence of a causal role for class size.

Results from international assessments such as the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) show that students in the East Asia do very well and also have relatively large classes - and it is often therefore concluded that class size is not important to academic achievement. But the flaw in this argument is not considering why high performing education systems in places like Hong Kong do well, including high levels of parental support, cultural factors that favour education and the prevalence of private tutoring.