“Does size matter” or “how large is large”? by Katja Strohfeldt

Teaching of large cohort sizes is becoming more and more prominent at Universities. Many colleagues will have experienced this and also faced the challenges which come with teaching large class sizes. I am delighted that the University decided to support our research into large class size teaching with the special aspect of diversity. Rachel Pye (Psychology) and myself (SCFP) busily started to gather data and information. There was one question I raised quite early after starting this Teaching and Learning Development funded project: “How large is large?” Looking back at my own experience of being an undergraduate student in Germany, I attended my Part 1 lectures with around 800 other students. Is this a large class size? One aspect of these lectures became quite clear to me: Whilst we certainly started with 800 students at the beginning of the semester, by the end only a fraction were regularly attending lectures.

Objectives:

  • What are the students’ expectations on class size at University?
  • Explore the students’ experience within large class sizes especially in diverse cohorts.
  • Develop a toolkit, which provides easy access to tools and tricks to help with large class size teaching.

How large is large?

Everyone will have their own opinion on how many students you would expect to teach in a large class size at the University. This is probably very much dependant on your own experience and your subject area. I would suggest you think for a moment about your own experience before continuing to read this blog…

We wanted to know what the students think, especially from those who had just newly started the University. We have surveyed around 800 students in our first year of the project. The Part 1 students were asked to fill in the questionnaires shortly after they arrived at University, Part 2 and 3/4 students followed. We also run some focus groups with Pharmacy and Psychology students, as both courses have a very interesting diversity profile.

It was very interesting that the Part 1 student gave very similar answers, independent of their course. Part 1 students defined a large class size with around 100 students. In contrast to this our focus groups showed that small classes were expected to accommodate around 6 students, similar to their A-level teaching groups. It is very interesting to see that Part 2 and 3/4 students consistently gave a lower answer for large class sizes. The more experienced students defined a large class size accommodating around 80 students. Again, this number was independent of the course the students were studying.

In summary, it was interesting to see that Part 1 students expected a higher number of students in their large class size teaching, than Part2/3/4 students. We hypothesize that experience of the latter group of students at University level being exposed to seminars, tutorials etc influenced their perception.

Does size matter?

The answer is probably yes and no. Our preliminary data has clearly shown that students expect being taught in large lecture theatres with many others when they come to University. Even looking at diversity as a factor does not change this expectation significantly. This would mean size doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, our preliminary data has also shown that size matters, in regards to teaching styles. Investigating expectations, anxiety levels and other aspects, indicate that students are prone to disengage easier in large classes. Students feel less noticed, more anonymous and have less of a chance to ask questions. Understanding and acoustics can also be a hurdle.

Quo vadis?

The next steps we have planned is to undertake interviews with staff members and undertaking the questionnaires with students in Parts 1, 2 and 3/4, especially focussing on students from the previous cohort who entered Part 2 now and expanding the study to other courses. The main aim is to develop a toolkit, which will be easily accessible to everyone.

More information will follow shortly. No doubt we will be in touch with many of you again and really hope you can support us. If you have any questions in the meantime, please email us (k.strohfeldt@reading.ac.uk) or follow us on Twitter @largeclassHE.

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