“I’d do things a lot differently if I just had fewer students.”
Have you ever thought or said this? This sentiment has been voiced to me over and over again by attendees in faculty development workshops and by graduate student instructors I have supervised. Truth be told, it is something I found myself saying often too. “I’d change my assignments if I could spend more time giving feedback.” “I’d do more active learning if the class size was smaller.” “I’d lecture less.” “I’d talk to individual students more.” Perhaps you have had many of these “I’d do this or that” thoughts as well. These “I’d” thoughts can motivate future course design and in fact yield another configuration of I and D: ideal design.
What would an ideal design of a class look like? Whereas we can certainly look at large body of evidence-based practices (many discussed in past pieces), there is another way to approach course design. Starting with our passions, our observations, and our self-reflections on our courses, we should also examine course design that addresses concerns we have had with our classes. What would be ideal for you as an instructor who cares about student learning? What is your ideal design?
Start with answering this question: What would you do if you had fewer students? If you take a moment to reflect on this question and jot down your answers, you can pave the way to redesigning your next course, which may provide a level of motivation different from only aiming to satisfy a checklist of evidence-based practices. Once you have a list of things you would ideally do, you can then look for different ways to do them.
To test this strategy, I set myself a lofty goal. I asked myself what I would do if I were teaching just one student. How different would my instructional practices be if twice or thrice per week I met with a single individual? I clearly would not lecture all the time. I would definitely ask them a lot of questions and have them ask me questions. I would create many opportunities for them to think aloud and apply the material and content from the course. How can one scale such practice up to larger numbers of students?
I do not think instructors factor class size into course design as explicitly as we should. When we do, it is more to compensate for large class sizes. I often hear faculty justify the use of multiple-choice tests because they have large classes. No group work? It would be too tough to do in class. Many opportunities for participation? Also too hard. When we are used to teaching a large class, we sometimes carry those same techniques over to a smaller class. I saw this firsthand when, after teaching sections of 120 and 250 students for Introductory Psychology, I had a chance to teach 25. I did not change my course design enough. I would do it differently today. In fact, I now teach sections of 400 and have taken many of my ideal design ideas and found ways to operationalize them in the large class. Here are some ideals I generated and some solutions to get you started.
Reexamine grading. With big classes it is easy to default to using automatic scoring solutions (the multiple-choice exam). Even if we do give writing assignments, we may be hard pressed to give enough feedback. Here is where we can think creatively. We can cut down on the number of writing assignments we give or, even better, make them developmental so that students use the feedback from an earlier assignment to make a better final product. Need more time to give feedback? Not a problem. Results from a large study of feedback in multiple classes (Fyfe et al., 2021) suggest that there is no single, invariable benefit to immediate feedback. Yes, feedback is more useful the more information it contains (Wisniewski et al., 2020), but especially as writing assignments go, even the process of writing without it being graded, with it being graded by peers, or with it being graded with a simple two-level rubric, is still better than no writing.
Expand participation options. Participation should be more than speaking up in class. Not only is talking in a large class intimidating for many students, but it is also not always practical. Especially to be an inclusive teacher, providing more opportunities for participation is important. Learning from what I did when I was remote teaching, I now use the chat in my learning management system during class. Students can now type in a question, make a comment, or respond to a question I raise right then and there, without having to raise a hand. I have an undergraduate teaching assistant monitor the chat, but even if you not have one, you can assign a student in class to it or check chat responses later. I now feel like every one of those students has a direct line to me whenever we are together, just as if I were one on one with them.
Using the chat and other free technology, such as Google Forms, also makes active learning (e.g., group work) easier and helps build community. In many ways you can now make the large class feel smaller. Modifying some of these technologies and explicitly carving up your class time to allow for more interaction and down time for students to talk to you and to each other also move you much closer to that ideal “small class” type of experience.
So the next time you find yourself saying you would teach differently if your class were smaller, catch yourself and see what you can do to accomplish the same goals.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.