Ask A Teacher: What's the Ideal Class Size?
Q: What do you think is the ideal class size?
A: The general line is that smaller classes are better. Try and imagine someone making the following argument with a straight face: “I would learn so much better if there were another thirty kids in this class, attendance was optional, and the professor didn’t grade my papers, or know my name.” Would you buy that? I’ve heard people curse small classes, but it’s usually because they can’t get away with chronic absences, and are forced to do the readings. In addition, lower class sizes mean more individual attention and a more directed and well-paced curriculum.
Look, I’m a contrarian by nature. If you tell me that The Avengers was a great movie, I’ll tell you that it was alright, but not as good as Wolverine: Origins. Every bone in my body is looking for a way to complicate the issue of ideal class size, but in this case, I can’t do it. Lower is just better. Taken to an extreme, this might suggest that private tutoring is the best form of instruction, period. And for the most part, it probably is—except when interacting with a wide variety of personalities and viewpoints is the goal. Still, even in these discussion-based scenarios, it’s generally better to have a lower number of students, because otherwise extroverts will dominate the class-time.
My current course has a maximum enrollment of 18 students. Usually, two or three drop out after the first week, leaving a total of about fifteen students who can handle both me, and a course beginning at 8:15 a.m. (no mean feat, in either case). While I personally think the class would work best at around 10 students, I really can’t complain about this number given the size of composition classes at other universities. In any event, I teach writing, and the class involves quite a bit of discussion, along with several workshops, so no more than 18 students, please, administrators-to-be.
Finally, I just want to note that I went to an enormous state university, and some of the best courses I ever took were large, introductory lecture courses, where professors would basically lecture and leave the grading and "personal" things to their 3-4 assistants. This requires a certain kind of personality and really, academic value notwithstanding, qualifies as a kind of performance art. When it’s done right, lecturing can be truly captivating, but this format also mixes authoritarianism and libertarianism in ways that can’t be worn on every occasion. One person tells you how it is; you can come if you want, and you either get it or you don’t. See your final grade posted online, and nice to have (never) known you. There is something to be said for this in certain circumstances, but such circumstances are rare. Since class sizes continue to grow, I think it’s important to end where I began: smaller classes are better, finis.