Class Size: The Root of All Evil

My main beef with the educational system as it stands, from kindergarten up through university, is with class size. I believe that if every class in the country were reduced to a maximum of fifteen students, many, if not most, of our educational and social ills would be resolved. Children, young adults and adults would learn better and would be better, because they would be seen, in the classroom if nowhere else, and because teachers would have the resources to connect and interact with them in a meaningful way that would lead to real learning much more often than it does now.

In large classes, most students are not met in what Vygotsky calls their “zone of proximal development” – they are not given tasks that are within their grasp but enough outside their comfort zone to be an interesting challenge. Instead, they are often asked either to achieve things that are out of their reach, or to achieve at a level lower than their current ability, so there is no opportunity for learning. The teacher has no real way of knowing this, or time to deal with the problem, unless the student makes the effort to seek out individual help, and many students won’t.

Now, I can’t do anything about my class sizes. English post-intro classes topped out at 43 students last semester – preposterous, but unavoidable under current conditions, unless you behave like a maniac until the course delete deadline and thin the herd that way. (Sometimes I’m tempted.)

A couple of semesters ago, I was teetering on the edge of quitting my job, because I had once been madly in love with teaching but now felt no enthusiasm and, in fact, dreaded going to work most days. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact source of the problem, but sensed it had something to do with not connecting personally with my students. It was hard to feel invested in them or their achievements while staring at a sea of faces, not knowing what was really happening behind the blank, bored or even enthusiastic expressions. One thing that would help, I thought, would be to know that I was making a difference to them, that they were not just showing up to class and doing the work badly or adequately or well, but that they were getting what they needed to move forward in a significant way.

So I decided to experiment with ways to get more individual time with my students. I tried scheduling “personal appointments”: for the second and second-last classes of the semester, I asked students, instead of meeting in the classroom, to schedule a ten-minute interview sometime over a period of a few days, where we could discuss where they were coming from (at the beginning) and what they had learned (at the end). This was fine, and achieved the purpose in some ways – getting them into my office made them more comfortable about coming on their own volition, and I did get to know a bit about some of them – but many interviews felt rote and not very enlightening, and the concrete result of the exercise was not clear. Could meeting 110 students individually over the course of a week really help me know their strengths and weaknesses and how to address them? It didn’t seem so.

This past semester, therefore, I abandoned the “personal appointments” exercise, but stumbled upon another possibility.

Before each major assignment, I usually dedicate a class to essay preparation; I ask students to put together a rudimentary outline of their paper and show it to me before they leave the class. Even if I announce this the class before and ask them to think about it, many students arrive unprepared to do this exercise and therefore get nothing out of it and end up leaving as soon as they can.

I decided to ask them, instead of coming to class to prepare an outline, to come to my office within a four-hour window around class time, with a prepared outline that we could discuss together. That way, I could vet the outlines that seemed solid and well thought out, and could spend some time working with individuals who were struggling. It was up to students to come or not, but because the activity replaced a class, many of them were motivated to come; over half of the students showed up with, if not a full-fledged outline, at least some ideas and questions.

The process was exhausting, but entirely worth it. I got to see what exactly students were achieving and what they were having problems with. Many students who didn’t meet with me about the first assignment and didn’t do well made a point of coming to see me about the second and third assignments. I could track their improvements much more closely. I also, at the suggestion of a colleague, made it mandatory that they come and see me, on their own time, if they wanted to rewrite an assignment (they can rewrite each except the final for a portion of the assignment grade.) This drew out a number of students who hadn’t come for the original essay consultation, and gave me a chance to deal with them individually as well. At the end of each day of consultations, I could barely stand up out of my chair, but I felt profoundly satisfied – I knew without a doubt that some real learning had taken place.

When I got my student evaluations at the end of the semester, a recurring theme was that those students who had taken advantage of those appointments were very appreciative. Many said that they were helped by those individual consultations more than by anything else in the course. I could see it in the students’ results, as well – those who spent time with me before each of the assignments made real improvements, both immediately and over time.

There was a payoff in terms of personal connection – not only did I get to feel more investment in them and their processes, but I believe your feelings about your teacher and how much he/she cares about your success affect your learning. I think, however, the major benefit was that I got to observe where each student was, and what they needed in order to move forward. I could offer a question or suggestion and watch the reaction – was he connecting to what I was saying, or was there a piece missing that I had to provide?

There is not really any way to address 43 different “zones of proximal development” in a classroom, but ten minutes of consultation with an individual can accomplish more than fifteen weeks of material that passes just over his or her head. I think this realization just might keep me from throwing in the teaching towel.

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)

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11 responses

  1. Good for you for starting this! I’ve gone through a few lulls in my enthusiasm for my career, so I know what it’s like. At the end of my first year of teaching, I had serious doubts whether I wanted to do this as a career. Conversation with a more experienced teacher saved me. Then again, just before I took the sabbatical, I was pretty burnt out. It’s going to be interesting now for me as I start teaching full-time again for the first time in many years.

    You’ve got me (reluctantly) thinking about teaching already, and I think I may try your idea of appointments before a major assignment. I have had such appointments after giving back the first assignment, thinking I can say so much more in five minutes than I can write in fifteen, but perhaps before makes more sense. The trouble is, as you’ve discovered, than many students don’t come prepared with an outline and haven’t given the assignment much time or thought. (They might have a half-baked thesis statement scribbled down on a piece of paper.) So I think I would assign some marks to it, say, 10% of the overall mark for the assignment, essentially make the outline due at that appt. and mark it on the degree of detail and effort more than the ideas and their organization.

    The other difficulty with meeting students beforehand is that they try to get you to talk out their essay for them. “Sir, can you say that again . . .”, as she reached for a paper and pen. I’ve heard of one teacher who does not allow students to write anything while in his office. And again, if they’ve come with some of their own ideas down on paper, you have something of theirs to work with.

    One final thing: I’ve found that asking them to write a narrative essay for the first essay (Intro course) is a nice way to get a little window into their lives, to make that connection you speak of.

  2. This post also resonates with me. I’ve made it mandatory that students pass their outlines before they are allowed to write the essay. (They can rewrite the outline as often as they like). This forces them to see me about them. Often, I’ll meet them in my office, but more often we’ll communicate via email or discussion threads which works amazingly well. (Many seem to feel more comfortable connecting on the Net.) Like you, I find it helps me connect with them. As well, many show quite a bit of gratitude. They seem to learn so much more effectively and many have said they now feel they know how to write an essay and that the process helped them manage the English Exit Test. That kind of individual teaching-learning process is so wonderful. If only we could do it more!

  3. Kevin: giving them grades for the initial outline is an interesting idea. I’ve found, though, that I don’t much mind “talking them through” the essay to a certain point – I usually go all Socratic on their asses, asking them a bunch of questions until they say something insightful that I can write down on a piece of paper and hand to them, saying, “There you go. There’s your thesis” or “There you go. There are your three points.”

    I also have them do narrative essays in some of my courses, and they almost always go well, but I’m not convinced that their skills with argumentative/analytical essays are affected by them very much – the students in the courses where narrative is included don’t seem to be a lot more successful with other kinds of writing than students in courses without.

    PK: I also think it’s important to be available via email for students who are more comfortable with it, but I find it easier to work through certain problems if you can sit down face to face with a pen and paper and scrawl a bit.

    Thanks so much for your comments.

  4. Siobhan it’s certainly true that some students respond much better to face to face interaction. However, I have found that some are too intimidated by teachers (perhaps due to bad experiences?) to get much out of such interaction, and, if they are especially shy, but love the Net, they tend to relax more using that medium. In fact, I had one student who wouldn’t say a word in class and never came to my office but became amazingly sociable online both with me and his fellow students on discussions boards I’d created for the students. He represents for me that group of kids who seem to feel more at home on the computer. Sad? Perhaps, but I’d rather meet them where they are most comfortable. This may be something that won’t last as the novelty wears off of communicating with a teacher online.

  5. It’s so awesome that we have this tool to help students who can’t bring themselves to interact much with us face-to-face. I’ve had experiences like yours, and I’m always glad that they have this other option if “talking” is too hard. Maybe it’s true that the novelty will wear off, but I’m not sure – the usefulness of this medium seems real – and maybe it will be replaced by something else that affords the same benefit of interaction + privacy.

    Thanks, PLK.

  6. Your points about the challenges and difficulties of engaging and working with students are quite astute. We work against the grain of an industrial construction within education by the evil forces of government which talk about providing quality education then pack classrooms with students who are so overwhelmed by their course loads that they often put learning college English at the back of their priority list.

    Finding ways to work around the over-packed classroom with overwhelmed students, all of whom are in different stages of personal development, is important, such as your ideas and those of Kevin and PLK. I fantasize about literature and language classes of 20 or so motivated and engaged students where there is a chance for more real learning to happen. Sadly, such a ideal learning context is not cost efficient so we must continue to try to make the best of a difficult situation.

    Fortunately, despite the system, we can see learning happen much of the time, and this is something to be proud of and satisfied about.

  7. I absolutely agree, RC; we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves and our students. We need to recognize the real learning that does happen in our classrooms. I frequently complain that our school system is set up in such a way that the students who succeed are those who would succeed no matter what context we put them in. However, teachers often do find creative ways to challenge, support and inspire students who are struggling, despite our and their overload. We need to remind ourselves of these successes when it feels like nothing is getting accomplished – and also to remind ourselves that we may THINK nothing is getting accomplished, but learning often happens without our being aware of it.

  8. Years ago, when I was studying at McGill, I met a retired professor who had studied at Oxford and was trying to bring his own version of the Oxbridge tutorial system to McGill. He claimed that it would be less expensive in the long run for the school and would significantly lower drop-out rates. Students would attend lectures but would also have small, weekly tutorials (run by people like us who have Masters degrees), consisting of about 24 students in each. A tutor would have about 7 hours teaching a week. One McGill education prof experimented with the system and found it significantly improved the students’ work. Unfortunately, within the confines of McGill’s current system, such tutorials were just too taxing for the prof. And sadly, despite claims that the system would save McGill money, the administration never agreed to try it out. Sigh…

    I often dream of being involved in such a project and wish that it could have gotten off the ground (especially as I was told I would have a job as a tutor). Perhaps it wouldn’t suit the CEGEP system as it really seems to require that students focus on a few subjects only, but it sure would be nice if it were incorporated into some Canadian universities.

    An article describing the system in more detail can be found at

    and here .

  9. What an interesting idea. I wasn’t clear at first on how it was different from the commonly used system of TAs as tutors, but I can see now that it involves a lot more student specialization and input. I think you’re right that it probably wouldn’t work within specific CEGEP courses, but within some programs there might be a way to dedicate time to this (for example, the final semester could involve a few tutorial-style courses rather than the usual full course load.) But, as the article acknowledges, it would involve overhauling the whole systerm. Thanks for putting this up – I have a feeling I’ll be going back to this article.

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