While many of us spent 2012 writing, reading and debating about whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) will forever change American higher education, Richard Linder was quietly and methodically becoming what historians will no doubt cite as America’s first true MOOCer. For the past four years, the 21-year-old , who left his home at age 16, was cobbling together enough MOOC-like online courses to earn an associate degree for under $3,000 -- with not one of the MOOC-like courses being taught by an accredited college.
The truth is that MOOCs are just a small and largely undefined “pebble” within online education; yet this pebble has caused a ripple that has turned many campuses on their heads and nearly cost a president her own. That president, like many college presidents today, faces what could be called “The No Wake Syndrome,” whereby key institutional stakeholders demand leadership and action on a host of mission-critical issues, yet are not willing to accept the wake caused by change, albeit small, that will ensue as a result of the action.
E-learning is one such issue; one such wake.
Having helped build one of the most successful online degree programs in higher education, it is worth sharing a few thoughts and suggestions with other like-minded institutional leaders seeking to find their way in the online world, including how best to prepare their stakeholders for the wake that will undoubtedly follow.
Over the years, dozens of college presidents have asked how Drexel University built such strong and scalable online programs. The answer is simple: it’s having the will and knowing the way.
It all starts with an open and honest discussion. We’ve learned from history that when a ship is taking on water, it does little good for the captain to simply order the band to play louder; hope is not a strategy.
Future economic and political circumstances will fundamentally change the role of a college president from one of building more buildings and growing their endowment, to one as lead advocate for the fundamental transformation of the institution’s core academic product and, in doing so, taking the hit from the “wake” of change that will undoubtedly come fast and hard from defenders of the status quo (see illustration).
Suggesting, for example, that your institution may someday offer or give credit for a $15 MOOC course, when your institution’s financial model is based on much-needed tuition revenue from large enrollment, introductory courses (e.g., Psychology 101) is both fiscally suicidal and morally disingenuous. Just ask the folks at Moody’s who recently issued a negative outlook for the entire higher education sector, stating their concern for the “ potentially destabilizing trends like the rise of massive open online courses."
The fundamental question that must first be addressed (and consciously built around) is: “Why are we doing e-learning?” Is it to increase tuition revenue? Decrease costs? Create greater access? Allow greater flexibility for our students? Experiment with new pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning, so as to better educate a different generation of students? All of the above?
Without a clear and unwavering “will,” it makes little sense for a college president to discuss the “way,” because ultimately the senior no-wake proponents on campus will delay and/or sabotage any meaningful e-learning strategy.
Once the will is established, it’s time to communicate the “why” to key stakeholders from the top to the bottom of the organization, including board members, faculty, deans, students and alumni. All must understand the risks and benefits involved in advancing an e-learning strategy. By the same token, all must understand the risks of NOT advancing one.
The key to succeeding is to incentivize faculty and senior staff. Those colleagues who help should be compensated through the sharing of tuition revenue generated from online courses and/or financial support for scholarly activities, such as paid attendance at professional conferences, new lab equipment, etc.
These same individuals must be engaged in defining and ensuring the highest level of quality of the online student experience, to include course development standards, teaching expectations, proper advisement and support services. The focus, above all else, must be on student-faculty engagement, both in and outside of the course.
Related and essential to a successful and scalable online program is a measurable retention strategy. While retention figures for online students are hard to come by, it’s generally agreed that much more attention and greater accountability is needed in this area. A baseline for retention must be established (certainly no lower then the baseline for on-campus students) and a retention “dashboard” created to enable the provost to monitor all online programs.
Here we all could take a few best practices from for-profit colleges, who learned long ago that it is cheaper to retain an existing student then it is to recruit a new one; not to mention their ethical obligation and the fact some risk losing their national accreditation for failing to maintain high retention rates.
For those institutions just jumping into the e-learning sector, it requires the thoughtful use of both internal and external resources, including independent marketing research. Much like diving into an unknown swimming pool, unless you know where the deep and shallow ends are located, you risk either drowning or breaking your neck. Here the careful use of third-party vendors and consultants to properly assess your institution’s market niche is typically a good expense.
George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The struggle for today's college presidents is having the courage to navigate their stakeholders away from the no-wake syndrome and toward a more personalized, technologically advanced and affordable online degree program.
Let’s hope that that Mr. Linder’s actions will serve as good reason for the struggle, as nothing less than the future of our profession, and our nation, is at stake.
Kenneth E. Hartman
Kenneth E. Hartman is a senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University.
One of the most serious problems facing colleges and universities today is that so many students leave before finishing their studies. When students drop out, it is bad for them because they lose huge future career and income potential; bad for the institution they leave because of lost reputation, revenue, and opportunity to make a difference in the students’ lives; and bad for society because of the need for an educated work force that is able to compete in the global marketplace.
Although there are many reasons students drop out, 12 research-validated risk factors, often in various combinations, help account for why most students drop out. These risk factors apply at a wide variety of institutions of higher education. Here are the risk factors and the means to mitigate them.
1. Uneven formal academic knowledge and skills. The most obvious and frequently addressed issue behind dropout is academic background. At many institutions, large numbers of students enter with spotty academic backgrounds, especially in science and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and in writing. Institutions of higher learning need counselors and tutors who seek to remediate deficiencies but also to enrich areas of strength. To pinpoint deficiencies and ensure proper placement, institutions need to move toward tests measuring specific skills and content knowledge and away from reliance on general aptitude tests, which are not very helpful in identifying specific strengths and deficiencies in knowledge and skills. Tests of general academic aptitudes only account, at most, for 25 percent of the variation in academic success in college. It therefore is a mistake to rely on them heavily for placement (or even admissions) decisions in college. In studies my collaborators and I did while I was at Yale University and then at Tufts University, studying diverse students around the country, we found that tests of broader aptitudes (creative and practical as well as analytical) could as much as double prediction of first-year college success.
Neal Schmitt and his colleagues at Michigan State University have found that biographical data significantly enhance prediction of college success. If colleges rely too heavily on general academic aptitude scores in making placement decisions, they risk creating self-fulfilling prophecies dooming students to lesser success.
2. Lack of informal knowledge about being a college student. In any new environment, whether an academic environment or a work environment, one needs to acquire "tacit" knowledge — the informal and often unspoken keys for achieving success in that environment. For example, toward or away from which courses and advisers should one gravitate? Which kinds of student activities become unrewarding time sinks that prevent one from spending adequate time studying? How does one decide upon people with whom to hang out? How do you study for a multiple-choice versus an essay test? In research on college students, Wendy Williams and I found that acquiring informal knowledge -- "learning the ropes" -- is at least as important as learning specific formal content knowledge for success in college. Rick Wagner and I found that those with high academic abilities are not necessarily the ones with high levels of informal knowledge, and vice versa. (Put another way, academic skills are no guarantee of common sense.) Unfortunately, in many cases, the informal knowledge with which one enters college from high school actually transfers negatively to the college environment: For example, a student may believe that the meager amount of studying he did in high school will be adequate in college, when in fact it is not.
3. Inadequate development of self-regulation skills. In high school, one often has a support network to help regulate one’s time and energy. Most important for many students is close supervision by parents or concerned individuals at one’s high school. In college, students often find themselves largely “on their own” for the first time in their lives. Some are able to channel their newly found freedom effectively, but others are not. They may spend too much time on extracurricular activities and too little time on studying, or they simply may channel their study time in ways that are less than effective. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have found that those who lack an autonomous style of self-regulation — who have trouble managing themselves independently — are at risk for lack of success in a number of different kinds of environments. Moreover, Teresa Amabile of Harvard has found that students and others who have been pushed very hard by their parents, teachers, or employers, and who have become used to extrinsic rewards for success, may have trouble motivating themselves intrinsically when immediate extrinsic rewards (parental approval, reward money, extra praise) are no longer readily available. A sufficient intervention should include a detailed analysis of how students spend (and do not spend) their time in order to determine whether their self-regulation is adequate to their needs as a college student. As an example, a tendency toward procrastination can lead students to underperform simply because they did not allow themselves enough time adequately to perform the assignments at hand.
4. Impaired self-efficacy and resilience. Some students come to college uncertain as to whether they have the ability to succeed in their college work. Other students come expecting to succeed, and then receive one or more low marks on college assignments or tests that lead them to question whether they are able to compete, after all. As their self-efficacy fails, their drive to succeed in college goes with it. Studies by Albert Bandura and his colleagues of Stanford University have found that self-efficacy is one of the best positive predictors of success in any working environment. Counselors thus need to ensure not only that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed, but also a mindset whereby they believe in their own potential to succeed. The students need further to understand that many of their peers who have an initial failure end up successful in their fields.
In my own case, I ignominiously failed my first psychology test freshman year (with a score of 3 out of 10 points); nevertheless, 35 years later I served as president of the American Psychological Association. The resilience to get beyond disappointing setbacks is key not only in college but also in work and in life, in general. In my long career as a psychology professor, dean, and provost, I have noticed that many of my graduate-school classmates and later colleagues who never achieved the success for which they hoped lacked not ability to achieve, but rather the resilience to believe in their ability to succeed in the face of disappointing setbacks.
5. A mindset believing in fixed rather than flexible abilities. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that students (and others) typically have one of two mindsets — or folk conceptions — regarding their abilities. What she calls "entity theorists" believe that abilities are largely fixed; on this view, when a student makes a mistake, the student shows a lack of abilities that is potentially very embarrassing. What Dweck calls "incremental theorists," in contrast, believe that abilities are modifiable and flexible and that making mistakes is useful because it helps one to learn and, in general, to grow. Dweck has found that although both kinds of students perform roughly equally well in easy or modestly difficult courses, incremental theorists excel in challenging courses because they are unafraid of extending their skills and making mistakes along the way. Students therefore need to understand that abilities are modifiable, that people learn through their mistakes, and that difficult but manageable challenges are good because they enable one to move ahead in one’s learning.
6. Inability to delay gratification. In many college courses, students do not find out until the end whether they have achieved the level of success for which they hoped. They do not find out for four or even more years whether they will indeed get the diploma they hope for. Often, success in a particular course or in college generally seems far off, whereas there are many gratifications to be had instantly, especially in the social domain.
Some students just cannot wait that long. Walter Mischel of Columbia University, when he was at Stanford, performed experiments with young children on their ability to delay gratification — to wait for a larger reward instead of receiving an immediate smaller reward. He found that those individuals who were able to delay gratification performed better academically, many years later when they were of college age, than did children who were unable to delay gratification. In other words, parents and teachers need to work with students to help them realize that many of the best rewards in life are not immediate.
7. Impaired ethical judgment. Many students today do not have the ethical judgment that we who teach in institutions of higher learning would have hoped we would have been able to take for granted. In my own work on ethical reasoning, I have found that many of today’s students do not even view as ethical issues such behaviors as cheating on tests or plagiarizing in papers. For many students, it just has become too easy to take the low road, and given the temptation, they do so. They get caught, with disastrous results for their success and sometimes longevity in college. It therefore is essential that students learn, as soon as they arrive in college, the ethical expectations of the institution. It should not be assumed that they have been taught, or at least, have learned these expectations.
8. Disengagement from the university environment. For many students, a precursor to dropping out is a progressive disengagement from, or failure ever to become engaged in, the university environment. The students simply never connect with, or become disconnected from, the environment, and hence become more and more psychologically distant and even alienated from it. Disengagement, or a failure to engage in the first place, may results from what French sociologist Emile Durkheim and later Harvard sociologist David Reisman referred to as anomie, or a breakdown in the social bonds between the individual and the community. Anomie can be a particular challenge for students whose sociocultural background is distant from that of many others in the college or university. When anomie develops, students may become more and more withdrawn until they literally withdraw from the college or university. Students should be strongly urged to actively engage in at least one extracurricular activity in order to enhance engagement with the university at large. Advisers also need to try to make sure that students stay “connected” and do not start to withdraw from the life of the university.
9. Lack of interest in courses. Often, students enter college and are eager to get on with their required courses. They may load up on distribution requirements or other courses that they need to get out of their way. But Richard Light of Harvard University has found that one of the best predictors of academic adjustment is taking, during the freshman year, at least one course solely because it is interesting, regardless of whether it is required. Students who load up too much on courses that are required but that do not interest them are at greater risk of dropping out simply because they are bored and find no relief.
10. Issues in academic trajectory. Issues in academic trajectory include either uncertain trajectory or a trajectory that is ill-matched to one’s interests or skills. The late Paul Pintrich of the University of Michigan pointed out how important conscious, well-chosen goals are to motivating students to succeed. Students are likely to perform at a higher level when they feel they have some kind of academic "destination" in mind — or at least when they feel that what they are doing will lead to such a trajectory. In some cases, students simply made a poor choice, perhaps because their interests do not match their skills, or perhaps because parents or other authority figures have pushed them into a direction that does not well fit them.
11. Psychological issues. Psychological issues include a diverse range of challenges, such as substance-abuse problems, interpersonal problems with important others, and untreated or nonaccommodated psychological problems, such as learning disabilities, attentional/hyperactivity disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, and so forth. Students entering with such problems should immediately be referred to appropriate counselors and programs. Appropriate programs work. Waiting can be fatal. Such problems are always best handled, obviously, by individuals trained in the diagnosis and treatment of the problems at hand.
12. Financial concerns. I have saved for last the most challenging of the problems we all face when students are at risk for nonretention, namely, financial concerns or anxieties about financial concerns. In the end, some students drop out just because they cannot make college work for themselves financially. The financial needs of students make it imperative that colleges and universities calculate aid needs correctly. Although we know that student debt is a major problem in our society, students who graduate from college will earn, on average, 84 percent more than students who do not, so sometimes avoiding debt is penny-wise but pound-foolish.
At Oklahoma State University, we have attempted systematically to address the problem of dropping out, especially after the first year of college, and to devise solutions that would keep students on track to earn their degrees. We have created a new center — the Learning and Student Success Opportunity (LASSO) Center — which targets students who are at risk for dropping out. All students are eligible for LASSO services, although our particular focus is on students in the first year, where the risk of nonretention is greatest.
Students are identified for LASSO services in one of several ways: (a) self-referral; (b) referral by a professor (easily done through electronic means); or (c) automatic referral either through low G.P.A., uncertainty about career trajectory, or an at-risk admissions profile. We also have other resources, such as a Mathematics Learning Success Center, a Writing Center, and college-based student-success centers, which seek to help students reach their maximum potential. Research-based efforts such as ours can help large numbers of students stay in college who might otherwise drop out.
For the most part, colleges do and should try to retain students rather than usher them out. But there truly are some students who are better counseled out. It may be that college is not, in the end, a good match for them, or that their particular college does not offer them the academic or extracurricular programs they need in order to be a good fit. In my "theory of successful intelligence," I argue that people who are successfully intelligent in their lives often first try to adapt to the environments in which they find themselves; that failing, they may try to shape the environments better to meet their needs; but if that fails as well, they may find their best option is to select another environment that is a better fit to their interests, skills, values, or needs. In the end, whatever our goals as an institution of higher learning, we ought always to be serving the students who entrust their academic careers to us.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education, and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Ethical Leadership at Oklahoma State University. He is president of the Federation of Associations in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and past president of the American Psychological Association. However, the views expressed in this essay are solely his own.
More than half of the 125 students investigated in a cheating scandal at Harvard University have been told to withdraw for up to a year, Bloomberg reported. Half of those remaining were placed on probation. The investigations and punishments have drawn considerable attention, and some have questioned whether cheating really took place. Critics have said that students were not given clear guidance on the forms of collaboration that were permitted and those that were banned.
University of Connecticut and Texas A&M University have ambitious plans for enrolling and graduating many more science and technology students, but are there enough talented high school graduates to fill the growing programs?
Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.
Harvard University officials have urged all faculty members to be clear in their syllabuses on policies about student collaboration,The Boston Globe reported. Some students complained last year, when the university experienced a major cheating scandal, that instructors were vague about the kind of collaboration that was permitted (and even encouraged) versus the kind of collaboration that would constitute cheating. The Globe quoted from the syllabus for an applied mathematics course to illustrate the kind of specificity now being encouraged. "For problem sets, students are strongly encouraged to collaborate in planning and thinking through solutions, but must write up their own solutions without checking over their written solution with another student," the syllabus said. "Do not pass solutions to problem sets nor accept them from another student. If you are ever in doubt, ask the course staff to clarify what is and isn’t appropriate."
In October, during the final 2012 U.S. presidential debate, the topic of class size came up within the context of global competitiveness. Although the candidates were mainly arguing the benefits of small classes in K-12 education, the issue deserves attention within higher education. With the growth of online classes, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), and with the creep upward in class size of many institutions that have faced budget constraints in recent years, it is worth asking whether class size matters in college courses. Do the learning objectives, teaching methods, teacher standards, and workload expectations vary, depending upon class size? Do students’ learning, motivation, and work habits in large classes match those in smaller classes?
The IDEA Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve colleges and universities committed to improving learning, teaching, and leadership performance, retains an archived database of student ratings that provides the opportunity to explore the effects of class size on faculty and student perceptions of learning and instruction. Student ratings of instruction collected from 2002-11 include undergraduate and graduate classes from public and private colleges across all regions of the continental United States. Approximately 40 percent come from master’s level institutions, 20 percent each from bachelor’s and doctoral level, 5 percent from associate, and 5 percent other. The data include ratings collected online and on paper, in face-to-face and online classes.
In our ratings system, the instructor indicates the course enrollment. Instructors also rate the relevance of 12 learning objectives (minor or no importance, important, essential) for the course. In addition, they have the option of answering questions about their approach to instruction, course requirements, and various course circumstances. On the student ratings form, students rate their progress on the same 12 objectives, the frequency of 20 teaching methods, and various course, teacher, and student characteristics. They also provide an overall rating of the course, instructor, and their attitudes toward the field of study.
Historically, the IDEA Center has categorized class size as small (10-14), medium (15-34), large (35-49), and very large (50+) when preparing technical reports. This same grouping was applied to the current analyses, which resulted in the following distribution of classes: small (63,622), medium (349,313), large (48,916), and very large (27,503).
The first thing evident is that the objectives instructors choose to emphasize vary by size of class. Instructors in very large classes are more likely to emphasize learning factual knowledge and less likely to stress developing communication skills (both oral and written) than are those in small and medium classes. This is especially true in general education courses.
As one might expect, the primary approach to instruction varies as well. One of the reasons instructors in large and very large classes emphasize the learning of factual knowledge may be because they rely upon lecture as the primary approach to instruction. Instructors in very large classes (about 86 percent) are more likely to lecture than those in small (43 percent) and medium-size (54 percent) classes. Still, lecture remains the most frequent teaching method regardless of class size.
Teaching methods differ as well. According to students, instructors in small and medium classes are more likely to involve students in hands-on projects and real-life activities, assign projects that require original or creative thinking, form teams or discussion groups to facilitate learning, and ask students to help each other understand concepts or ideas. Perhaps most troubling is that students in large and very large classes report the instructor is less likely to inspire them to set and achieve goals that really challenge them.
The reason for such lack of inspiration and challenge may relate to differences in course characteristics. Students in very large classes report fewer non-reading assignments than do those in small and medium-size classes. They also rate instructors lower on their achievement standards and their expectations that students share in responsibility for learning. So, the case could be made that students perceive larger classes as less rigorous.
But don’t assume students are champing at the bit to enroll in courses they perceive as less rigorous. Students in small classes consistently report a stronger desire to take the course than those in very large classes. Moreover, they report stronger work habits. And it’s not just the students who perceive such class-size differences. Fifty-three percent of instructors in small classes believe the level of student enthusiasm had a positive impact on learning compared to only 38 percent of instructors in very large classes.
Such enthusiasm translates into higher student ratings of progress on relevant objectives. Student average progress on course objectives the instructor rates as either essential or important is more than one-half standard deviation higher in small compared to very large classes. The advantage for small classes is especially evident in developing creative capacities (writing, inventing, designing, performing in art, music, drama, etc.) and communication skills (oral and written), where student progress is about a full standard deviation higher compared to very large classes. For medium-size classes, the advantage is nearly the same. When you compare small and medium-size classes with classes enrolling 100 or more students (of which there are over 6,000 in the database), the differences are even more staggering.
The smallest gaps in student progress between small, medium, and very large classes are found in gaining factual knowledge and learning fundamental principles and theories. The gaps do not even increase markedly in classes exceeding 100.
A finding particularly relevant for general education, where students sometimes get their first impressions of a discipline, is the relationship between class size and student attitudes toward the field of study. Students in small and medium classes report more positive attitudes about the discipline as a result of taking the course than do those in very large classes.
These effects of class size are not terribly surprising. The IDEA Center has known for years that class size makes a difference, which is why course enrollment has long been one of the variables we use to adjust student ratings scores. Moreover, recommended actions presented to instructors in the individual IDEA class report are made based on comparisons between the class’s average rating for a teaching method and other classes of similar size. The effectiveness of a teaching method depends not only on which objective is being emphasized but also on how many students are enrolled in the course. However, as reported previously and confirmed in the current dataset, student work habits and motivation are more important predictors of achievement on relevant learning objectives than is class size. The key is for faculty to encourage such productive behaviors in students regardless of how many are enrolled in the class. But in large and very large classes this is apparently a more daunting task.
Even in higher education, then, class size makes a difference. In very large classes, instructors are more likely to emphasize factual knowledge and less likely to develop communication skills. In turn, in very large classes students are less likely to report progress on communication skills and creative capacities, such as writing, inventing, designing, and performing. The types of learning where students in very large classes approach the progress of those in small and medium classes is in developing basic background in the subject matter.
As policy makers and institutions of higher education continue to explore the possibility of offering fewer sections with larger enrollments (including MOOCs and many other forms of online education and in-person education with large enrollments), the effects of class size on teacher behaviors and student learning, motivation, and work habits should be part of the conversation. Admittedly, the increasing sophistication of learning analytics and data mining has the potential of making MOOCs and very large classes more personalized. The instructor could have the ability to detect when a student is struggling and to provide targeted feedback and additional assignments to foster improvement, something that was previously likely only in small-to-medium size classes. Whether such an approach will support the development of creative capacities and communication skills remains to be seen.
The additional costs of smaller classes in a higher education system that is already viewed to be too expensive are clearly recognized. Nonetheless the self-reported learning benefits and positive attitudes toward smaller classes should not be ignored. Although our data are based on student self-report, many of the findings noted above merit testing using direct measures of student outcomes. At the very least, having a better understanding of the qualities of small and medium classes that support greater learning might improve the effectiveness of larger classes.
Steve Benton is senior research officer at the IDEA Center and emeritus professor of educational psychology at Kansas State University. Bill Pallett is the former president of the IDEA Center.