Reduced enrollments and state budget cuts have led to increased class sizes at for-profit and nonprofit colleges and universities. “There are 2.4 million fewer college students in the United States than there were just six years ago” (Marcus, 2017). Schools must be creative in implementing strategies to remain solvent. Increasing class size is one strategy – in both on-campus and online classrooms – that allows administrators to benefit from economies of scale. However, students and faculty are negatively affected by that financial “solution” in many ways. There are multiple repercussions of increasing class size, including: decreased instructor interaction with students and provision of substantive feedback on assignments, declining student satisfaction, especially-concerning decreases in student learning, and increased instructor workload (Saiz, 2014).
The reality is, it’s impossible to devote the same time to each student in a larger class as you’re able to when there are fewer of them in the class; yet, fundamental elements of adult learning theory and online pedagogy still apply. Learning is facilitated by active instructor engagement and by the provision of timely and substantive feedback. In the online classroom, in particular, where students may feel adrift in cyberspace, instructor presence and responsiveness are critical.
How do you deliver high-quality education in classes with increased class sizes, while managing your workload within realistic time constraints? I’ve outlined below seven broad strategies to consider. Although the focus is on online education, many of these strategies could be applied in face-to-face classes as well.
1. Modify assignments
Can some time-intensive assignments be replaced with more time-efficient ones that still target learning objectives?
Effective writing skills must be developed, but could some written assignments – which are the most time-intensive assignments to grade – be replaced with assessments and activities that challenge students without over-burdening instructors?
Consider assessing knowledge-level learning outcomes with auto-graded quizzes. Developing them might require more up-front work, but inclusion of one or two quizzes can significantly reduce grading time.
Be creative in designing assignments that capture analysis-level learning outcomes. For example, is there content that would lend itself to student-run debate forums? That would be a novel way to get students interacting with the content and then each student would be required to post a summary/analysis post at the conclusion of the debate.
2. Increase efficiency in grading papers
Reduce assignment length; it takes less time to review three pages than six. Decide what’s most important to assess and, when possible, shorten assignment length to target those criteria. Be selective in determining what should be covered, and use the reduced page count guidelines as a learning opportunity; reinforcing the importance of conciseness. Remind students that shorter papers require crystal-clear focus and ruthless editing – both skills that will serve them well in their professional writing.
Grade efficiently: If you’re not teaching a writing course, there’s no need to mark every mechanical error on each paper. Identify and note syntactical, editing, punctuation, and/or citation errors for a page or two, and indicate that you’ll focus all remaining feedback on content and analysis exclusively. Those few mechanical notes provide valuable feedback and let students know the kind of errors to avoid on future assignments, which should mean fewer missed points and less pushback on grades.
Look for one or two points per page that effectively (or poorly) address key learning outcomes; highlight those and provide a comment. Commenting on every well or poorly-made point in a paper is ridiculously time-consuming, even with a small number of papers to grade. In larger classes, that level of feedback would leave no time for anything else. However, taking a few minutes on each student’s paper to note a few examples that demonstrate attainment of intended learning outcomes reinforces those objectives and facilitates learning, without demanding much time. It also lets students know that you are, indeed, reading their work and appreciate their efforts.
Use rubrics: Share rubrics with students before
assignments are due. This helps them better meet expectations and reduces your own frustration and time-demands, which are increased when students submit work that misses key criteria. If your LMS enables the use of embedded rubrics, get comfortable using them; they can be huge time-savers! Otherwise, simply copy/paste your rubric on the student’s downloaded paper, provide overall comments (utilizing a bank of often-repeated comments can save time, too), and assign points per criteria to help students understand how they did or did not meet expectations.
3. Use your announcements
Announcements can be time savers and learning boosters. They can set expectations, clarify objectives, and offer class-wide feedback. By highlighting commonly-made errors on assignments, these announcements will diminish the need to repeat the same comments on multiple papers, and reduce the number of student questions posted in the course site or – even more time consuming –emailed to you.
One strategy: Post “tips” before assignments are due. These demonstrate instructor commitment and interest (increasing student satisfaction), and help students understand and meet objectives, which can reduce grading time and time needed to respond to student push-back on grades.
4. Facilitate your forums more efficiently and effectively
Track your posts to students in the discussion forums. This can seem counter-intuitive, but once you get in the habit, this practice can actually save time. I download the gradebook at the beginning of the term, deleting assignment columns, and then save a spreadsheet with a column of student names and one column for each week. When I reply to a student post during the week, I place an “x” in that week’s column by their name. By the end of week, I can just quickly skim any new posts (since I’d marked posts “read” each time I’d been in the course site throughout the week), and focus reading only those posts by students I’d not responded to yet. This takes a little more time in the first half of the week, but makes the end of the week’s discussion facilitation a breeze and enables me to ensure that each student feels heard.
5. Develop daily course-site habits
Log into the course site every day. These daily check-ins prevent little problems from becoming time-consuming big ones and end up saving you time in the long run. A nibble-and-chunk, or dart-and-linger, approach to online classroom management can be effective. A daily quick check for questions and a few posts to the discussion enable you to establish presence and stimulate conversation, facilitating learning and increasing satisfaction, without consuming a great deal of your time. It’s easier to budget your time by making two-three posts per day, rather than trying to respond to 10+ students a few times each week. Supplement those daily darts into the course site with one or two more time-intensive days, which will be less demanding than they might have been since you kept on top of things throughout the week.
6. Schedule email time
An advantage of online teaching is that we can do it anytime, day or night, any day of the week. That’s a disadvantage, too, as it’s easy to get in the habit of working continuously throughout the day – every day! Reading and responding to emails for a few minutes each morning and/or evening, rather than checking your inbox multiple times a day, allows you to budget your time, and reduces the inefficiency of multi-tasking. “Turn off all notifications outside of [your] dedicated email breaks so that nothing drags you back to your inbox” (Default, 2015, 3) .
7. Utilize your LMS tools
As online learning has grown, so, too, have the tools and resources to support it. Most LMS’s have features designed to increase efficiencies and effectiveness. Invest the time to become proficient in your LMS. Learn how to organize and manage your discussion forums. For example, marking posts “read” at the end of each visit to the course site means that you have fewer posts to wade through the next time you come to class. As noted earlier, using the LMS embedded rubrics can significantly reduce grading time. Automating notifications can allow you to prioritize and organize your tasks each week. Get comfortable with the LMS features that will, ultimately, reduce demands on your time.
The bottom line
It’s likely that increased class sizes will be the norm in higher education for the foreseeable future. It’s in your best interest to develop time-saving practices that will enable you to efficiently manage your workload, without sacrificing student learning.
Default, A. (2015, January 7). 5 bad email habits that waste your time. Entrepreneur
. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240864
Marcus, J. (2017, June 29). Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment. Higher Education. The Hechinger Report
. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/universities-colleges-struggle-stem-big-drops-enrollment
Saiz, M. (2014, Fall). Economies of scale and large classes. Thought & Action
, 149–159. Retrieved from http://qa16.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/t-SF_Saiz.pdf
Eileen F. Schiffer is an assistant professor in the School of Business at Marylhurst University.