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Improving Learning in Small Classes

Because a class is smaller and discussion is more likely, some professors feel that simply introducing a topic related to reading is adequate to motivate students and promote learning.  Small classes need structure just as lecture classes do.  Further, many students lack instructional awareness and are unfamiliar with classes that require active learning.  Without structure or sufficient experience on the part of students, small classes, simply because of their size, will not be effective ways for students to learn.  Much of the advice for good teaching in large classes holds true for small classes as well.

  • Think through your ENTIRE course.  You may make changes as the semester goes on, but students need to see the big picture.
  • Explain your course structure at the beginning and offer your rationale for it.
  • Ask students to take home and read your syllabus and other class materials.  They can make up questions, query your rationale, and make suggestions.
  • Assess your students’ knowledge and skills immediately.  You may need to rethink your assignments, readings, or the amount of time you have allocated.
  • Follow up on what they tell you.  Don’t take it personally!  If students are asking “Why,” you either need to clarify what you’ve already written or listen to their reasoning or both.
  • Make your objectives clear and let students know how you will assess them, particularly if most or much of their work is done in groups.
  • Consider when you will need formal groups and when you will use informal groups.  Formal groups have been put together by the teacher and will remain as a group for the duration of the semester or a significant project.  Informal groups may be assembled on the spur of the moment to complete a task better done by a group than an individual.
  • Take into consideration the skills, abilities, tendencies, goals, and needs of the students you put into formal groups.  Also consider gender, age, learning styles, extraversion and introversion, racial or ethnic background, maturity, native/non-native language speakers, out-of-class relationships (friends, roommates, couples), and major/career goals. 
  • Provide directions to groups, whether formal or informal.  You may need to put them up as visuals as well as read them aloud. 
  • Have a clear “deliverable” or “outcome” of work in the group, whether formal or informal.  That could be a report to the class, an answer to a question, questions for another group, a written product, etc. 
  • Set a time limit on the group work.
  • Work with students on group dynamics.  Provide some guidelines for them and model them if possible or have students model them.
  • Monitor your groups.  That way you will know which guidelines or tasks they are finding difficult.
  • Use classroom assessments to determine how well the structure is working when you are not monitoring groups.
  • Require progress reports for work done in groups outside of class, or provide class time so that you can keep better track. 
  • Allow students to evaluate each other’s work in groups.  These can be submitted individually. 
  • Provide a rubric outlining how participation in groups and how end products will be graded.
  • Ask students to help you devise discussion questions.  Students often create questions that are much more relevant to them than any questions a professor can make up.
  • Allow students to discuss in both small and large groups.  Rotating between such groups helps students learn how to negotiate different kinds of discussion. 
  • If you are grading participation, be clear about what counts.  Some faculty create a student roster they use each day.  If a student participates productively, they simply put a check next to the student’s name. 
  • Ask students to assist in facilitating class discussion.  This can be a revolving responsibility, one that is graded. 
  • Let students know which portions of discussion you found most interesting and how that discussion demonstrated their abilities and knowledge.
  • Give students time to do written reflections on discussion, to jot down notes, or to question classmates about comments made earlier.
  • Offer students the chance to write notes to classmates, in which they thank them for a particularly helpful comment, an interesting and thoughtful response, or a provocative question. 
  • Offer praise to students when they demonstrate actions that you are looking for, for example, making specific reference to an earlier comment and building on that in their own response.  This kind of immediate feedback reinforces helpful behaviors.
  • Reserve the right to ask specific students to respond to questions so that a wide range of views may be heard and so that less vocal students gain speaking skills. 
  • Create a safe environment for discussion to take place by setting ground rules on civility and modeling for students a critical but open stance toward discussion topics.
  • If working with case-studies or following a Problem-Based Learning model, offer a great deal of guidance early on, and pay careful attention to process of each group through the case study and toward a final product.
  • Make a wide range of appropriate study materials available to students, as they will have more choice in their reading and approaches to the course topic.
  • Take advantage of the size of the class to meet regularly with students.  Group meetings are fine; leave students the option to meet alone with you.
  • Set goals for each class and let students know how these class goals connect to course goals.
  • Measure outcomes throughout the semester and give students feedback on their progress, both as a class and individually.
  • Make sure that all tasks are meaningful.  Often, students perceive group work as “busy work.” Group work must be something that can be better accomplished by a group or that are complex enough that each group member must complete a portion of the task for the entire task to be accomplished.

Setting up small classes to work well requires significant time initially, and a great deal of attention particularly early in the semester with lower-level classes.  As students gain experience and trust in the course structure, and as they gain confidence in their own skills, less work is required of the professor.

Adapted from Philip C. Wankat, The Effective, Efficient Professor:  Teaching, Scholarship and Service, Boston:  Allyn and Bacon (2002):

  • Center for Teaching Excellence
  • Dr. Mary Anne Hannibal, Director
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