Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Class Size and Lectures

Before I got into online technology but after I got married (1990 – 95), I spent a good deal of my teaching time with intermediate microeconomics. It was not very satisfying. Part of this was the student motivation. Business students, who were the bulk of the audience, had to take this as a requirement and so they and students who wanted to transfer into the College of Business (at the time many Econ majors from Liberal Arts and Sciences were in this category) took the course. Both groups viewed it as a hurdle to overcome and in the main they didn’t like it. This was evidenced by the course evaluation ratings across instructors teaching the course. Everyone scored in the low 3’s or lower (on a 5 point scale), a rating that was poor measured against comparable courses. (I’m not sure what comparable means in this case, but I’ll leave that and hope the reader gets the idea.) As I’ve written elsewhere, my experience was to have a few students who really liked what I was doing and thought it was great, a bunch more who hung in there, and then a number who “fell over the cliff,” measured by exam performance. In terms of what these kids got out of the course to affect their thinking afterwards, I’m not sure there was much of a distinction between those in the latter two categories.

This experience provided me with many reasons to reflect on teaching and all the various issues involved – the role of math in teaching economics, whether students should be forced into taking required courses that they themselves don’t endorse, the obligations that students take upon themselves as a consequence of enrolling in a course, and a host of others.

Here, however, I want to consider class size. Most of the time I taught in a classroom with amphitheater seating that had a capacity of about 65. I was the best of the worst, meaning while the students taking intermediate micro thought it was a pits, being required to take it they wanted into my section over other instructors, so I started off with full capacity. I might lose 5 or 6 of those by the time the semester ended. I don’t have good recall about class attendance, but I don’t think it was a major issue.

At the time, it never would have occurred to me that any of the teaching and learning issues I had were a consequence of having so many students – offering this course as a seminar didn’t seem like a possibility and certainly in the principles classes we were offering huge lectures with 10 times as many students. So I just took the class size as a fact of the environment.

I have many colleagues who advocate for online teaching, and in that environment 20 is a large class and most don’t recommend going beyond 25. But because teaching is allocated by “load” where in my unit the standard load was 2 courses a semester, in our residential instruction world we’re more apt to see classes of size 65 (or somewhat larger) rather than a plethora of sections sized 22 or so. From the point of view of both instructor time commitment and also freshness in teaching the material, teaching the class with 65 for three hours a week is better than teaching the 3 sections of the class with 22 students per section for a total of nine hours a week. Indeed, as a consequence of the tight budgets on campus the last few years, the biggest area of growth for classroom use is for rooms in the size range 60 – 110. How does one teach a class of that size well?

On the flip side of that, however, the university needs to be the agent of the students as well as of the faculty. Suppose that students prefer the classes in the size range of 22 or so because those classes enable more give and take, even if those are taught by less high paid faculty (but if you get the drift those faculty must be paid on the order of 1/3 of what I’m paid to make this a break even proposition financially or teaching loads must rise dramatically among research faculty, implying less time allocated to the research). Wearing my economist hat, an efficient solution for high enrollment course rubrics would be to offer both alternatives and have and exchange rate for compensating instructors (e.g., 1 section of size 65 gives the same teaching credit as 1.5 sections of size 22, where that number 1.5 is the exchange rate) and a different rate for students (e.g., opting for the 65 seat section for this course increases the likelihood that you can get into a small section of some other course next semester, and graduating seniors get lowest priority on small sections unless they’ve already banked higher priority). One could then “let the market” determine the relative frequency of the two types of offerings. I’m not holding my breath that we’ll see this any time soon. But even if we did, it still begs the question about how do to a good job teaching the larger class.

I’d like to break that up into two parts. The first part is an instructor mindset issue. When most instructors lecture they think about teaching in terms of what they deliver in the classroom and they focus on the delivery. In so doing they don internalize fully, if at all, the student experience as the student goes about learning the subject matter of the course. Suppose we can change the instructor mindset. The second part is on whether lectures still make sense and if so what should the lecture be on and how should it be delivered.

Apart from the folks who teach Physics and advocate for Just In Time Teaching, I don’t know anyone who has really asked this in a serious way. I think there is quite a bit to JITT (and some related ideas about using “clickers” in the classroom) but either a somewhat different tact must be used for a large lecture course in American History or and Intro to Philosophy course, or one may be forced into arguing that in courses where there are “right answers” the approach can work but in courses where there are “points of view” the lecture becomes difficult. So I’d like to bring to the fore both sides of that.

It’s easy to describe he internalizing the student issue. Let the instructor envision herself as the student and let the instructor describe what it is that she would do if she were a student in the class and had to learn the course material. Many instructors have the (naïve) expectation that the students will do just that. One of the great things about learning technology is that it provides evidence of student learning (and non-learning) to dissuade instructors from this naïve view. Most students will do something other than how the instructor would go about the task simply because most students are not destined to become instructors and they don’t have that type of mindset.

It will be harder for the instructor to give an informed opinion of what the students actually do, but for the sake of argument here let’s say the instructor can learn this from dialog with the students outside the class setting. Confronted with a dissonance between the student behavior the instructor would like to see and what actually occurs, the instructor can then ask how can the student behavior be moved closer to the ideal, using in class activities, out of class assignments, individual work, group work, etc. – all instruments at the instructors disposal. When the instructor has thought long and hard about this, then the instructor is internalizing as I’ve described. It is then a matter of repeated experimentation with method and approach to get to a good point in the teaching. That won’t happen all at once when the instructor has the “AHA!” that she must internalize the student learning. But the instructor will be well on the way.

So now let’s assume the instructor has had the AHA moment. Can the instructor continue to embrace lecture? There are certainly things about lecture as it is now commonly practiced that I think should be abandoned. Lecture as the student’s initial foray into the subject, without the student doing prior reading or other preparation for the live class session seems particularly wasteful. That type of stuff can be put on line and then serve for some students as an alternative to reading the text.

But if not that, then what should the instructors lecture on? I believe some suggestions can be indirectly garnered from the research on how students learn and then the instructor can try to design the lecture based on the principles articulated there. But that may still be too abstract for some teachers. So, personally, I prefer to ask this particular question. There is a well understood distinction between novice and expert in that a novice has one view of an idea and struggles to maintain and apply that one view while an expert has multiple views of an idea and effortlessly moves between the various representations. So the teacher (presumably an expert in the subject) should ask, what is that one view that students have and what are the next steps toward broadening that perspective?

My friend Peggy Lant used to tell me that good instruction is modeling for the students. We instructors should model taking that next step along the novice-expert continuum. We should lecture about that. We should also lecture about taking a wrong step and then back tracking. We should do a lot more of that especially to convince students that we are not oracles and that we learn just as they do.

Can this be done effectively in lecture? I hope so and I believe so, but I don’t know so. I’m teaching now but I’ve opted to teach a small seminar not a large lecture class and I haven’t taught a large class in 5 years. So I don’t have first hand experience with which to resolve the question.

It has become almost shameful to advocate for the lecture – it is so teacher centric, students are too disengaged, it is not active learning. Unquestionably there is some truth to the critique, but it doesn’t fully resonate with me. I’ve had some excellent professors when I was an undergrad and I thoroughly enjoyed their lectures. If the form itself is lacking, how could this have been possible? I know that I went out of my way to attend lectures that I thought would be enlightening, without any course grade depending on it or the need to fill a prerequisite, just to learn. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.

Shouldn’t it be possible to capture some of that even with students who are not destined for the professoriate, if the instructor is attuned to the issues?

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