"Time is up. Turn in your papers." The professor’s command was clear. The few remaining students dutifully filed down to add their test booklets to the stack on his desk at the front of the large lecture room. That is, all except one student at his seat in the far back.
Despite the protests by the professor that the student was out of time, the student kept writing answers. Finally the student came down the aisle to the front of the classroom.
"You know I can’t accept your paper now," proclaimed the professor.
The student leaned forward saying "You don’t know me, do you?" and slipped his paper randomly into the stack of test papers, and left.
This story may be an academic "urban legend," but it brings home a message about class size. Teachers should know their students. And when classes grow larger than 30–40, they become ineffective.
Academic classes are more about questions than answers. Whether it is science or literature or history, the teacher’s task is not to just spout information, but to verify that the students’ understanding is correct and in depth.
In a good "lecture class," the teacher regularly solicits feedback. When a teacher poses questions, students get to hear concepts explained and explored again in classmates' terms. Teachers often try to get students to analyze what they have learned, to question if the text is correct, and ask new probing questions themselves.
Too many lawmakers, parents, and even students think an education is about learning answers. But in most academic disciplines, a quality education is about learning to ask questions, productive questions based on an in-depth understanding of the content. —Questions structured in a way that leads to new knowledge. Memorizing what is known is a task that ends at the final exam. Learning to apply knowledge in daily life to answer new questions is what makes classwork valuable throughout life.
A class size bigger than 30–40 is too large to allow all students to actively participate in discussion and interaction at some time within a week. And any classroom that is bigger than five rows of students deep is too big. The reason is simple.
Remember when your teacher filled the blackboard with notes and then, while erasing it, tossed a question to the class. Scanning the students, the teacher could almost always pick out the one student who did not know the answer. How does a teacher do that?
Now, I bet that you know. If you were the student who did not know the answer, you probably tried to glance down or away.
The clue is in your eyes. When you understand the concept and are mentally involved in the flow of ideas, your pupils are dilated larger. A teacher can even read the "ah ha" moment when a student "gets it." But if you do not understand—or could care less—your pupils constrict. It is hard to hide that fact that you are thinking "huh"? Along with other "body language," a teacher can gauge whether the bulk of the class understands, or is lost.
Some students say that "I would rather be in a large lecture hall with a great teacher than in a small classroom with a mediocre teacher." Yes, it is possible to be entertaining in a large lecture hall for a day, but it is not possible to be a great teacher to these masses for a semester. The failed educational-TV experiment of the 1960s to proved that canned “great lectures” were not great teaching.
A student has a right to be known by his or her teacher. —And a right to the attention of that teacher throughout the course.
Unfortunately, some Kansas universities have class sizes commonly in the hundreds—sometimes over a thousand! Assistants scurry around to take attendance and hand out worksheets or quizzes. These are theatrical productions, not classes.
To communicate with unique students, real teachers have to know them.
Huge class sizes are institutionally-sanctioned educational malpractice.