It began with a vivid dream, in which REM sleep metamorphoses into the awakened conscience, providing a vision of what will or ought to be. In reality, I had a class to teach in five hours. However, at 4 a.m., the hallucinatory dream-realm seemed more real to me than irrational: Benjamin Franklin had visited me with a message for a student in media ethics.
Any teacher, let alone administrator, who would publicize such a visitation, is due for sabbatical or retirement. I get that. But this was an extraordinary time for me. A colleague had passed away suddenly, and I had volunteered to take her class. As a journalism director, I had no classroom responsibilities. The last time I taught media ethics was spring 2003 in my last quarter at Ohio University, where I worked before taking the Iowa State University position.
This is an account of what began as a dream and ended as an affirmation about the importance of higher education.
In the asynchronous landscape of the conscience, I did not meet the historic Ben Franklin with ponytail and coonskin cap. History is insignificant in the absence of time. Reputation is not.
Imagine learning without warning that a powerful or an influential person — Angela Merkel, say, or Nelson Mandela — was en route to your home. What would be the first thing on your mind?
I had to clean the house. Hence began the whirr of imagery dusting, washing dishes, vacuuming, as the doorbell rang like a school bell, or liberty bell maybe, now that I think of it.
In a blink, the house was clean and Franklin across from me. "I have an important message for one of your students. She is going to change the country."
"Mr. Franklin," I said — yes, I called him that — "I am grateful for your visit."
"You have nothing to do with it. I’m here because of a student. I have three words for her."
He shared them, and I awoke bedazzled and apprehensive.
I entered Room 169 in Hamilton Hall. The class was still grieving the loss of one of Iowa State’s most iconic professors, Barbara Mack, who died on Aug. 23 after teaching the first two sessions of media ethics. (See “24 Hours” about the shock of her passing.)
Not only was I replacing a beloved professor, in the eyes of my students I was the quintessential administrator with no classroom experience and with antiquated lectures of the pre-digital age. Worse, I had substituted the existing syllabus of Professor Mack with one of my own, containing more philosophy than newsroom practice. (I would adjust for that by requiring the class to do an online media portfolio with personal ethics statement.)
Instinctively I knew I had to gain students’ trust, and that’s when I decided to share with them my Franklin dream.
I still recall the puzzled looks of 65 students. I pressed on, sharing common knowledge about Franklin as journalist and highlighting his contribution to virtue ethics.
When he was 20, about the age of my students, he devised an ethical plan to shape his life, espousing the virtues of "resolution" (promise keeping), "tranquility" (serenity during incivility), "frugality," "industry," "sincerity," "justice," "moderation" and, above all, "humility."
All of those virtues are practiced still in Iowa, known for its work ethic.
I told them my dream and those three important words: "Read, read, read."
After lecture, I returned to my office and read several e-mails from women who felt that Franklin was speaking directly to them. They knew they were going to make a difference, and this was some sort of affirmation from the beyond.
That was the first inkling that times had changed. I thought students would be more skeptical.
Here is one such e-mail: "I meant to come in to talk to you today, and actually bumped into you in the Daily newsroom, but you seemed to be all over the place doing business, so I decided to e-mail you instead.… I would like to give you some background on your Benjamin Franklin dream in saying he was probably speaking about me!"
About a dozen students in media ethics also worked for our independent newspaper, the Daily. Barbara Mack was on the publication board. I was going to forward those e-mails to her when I remembered she was no longer with us. Or maybe like Franklin, she was, in spirit.
Instead, I shared the e-mails with our office manager, Kathy Box. She said something that rang true about our role as teachers. "We should approach every class believing there are students who will change the world for the better."
Over the course of the semester, those students changed me. Keep in mind it had been a decade since I had taught this class. There were no smartphones then. A small percentage of the typical campus had wireless in 2003. Now technology has exploded with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and omnipresent media and blogs that are part of the modern classroom and our lives.
During the first few weeks, some students were wary about my teaching methods emphasizing reading. Whereas Barbara Mack, a lawyer (and you need to be if you dare do this) confiscated smartphones if students used them during lecture, I paid them no heed whatsoever. "Text away," I said, asking students to sit in rows nearest the exit if they wanted to network socially. These were "liberty seats," allowing students to come and go as they pleased. "It’s your tuition dollar."
At first, a dozen or so students embraced that policy, believing it was lenient, until the midterm. At Iowa State, professors must report to the registrar all those students earning a C- or lower. Out of the 65, I reported a third of the class — a fair distribution of grades, I thought. To students, this was alarming. Many needed media ethics for graduation. They couldn’t just drop the class without setting themselves back careerwise and financially.
Ah, the beauty of extra credit! I had forgotten about that, too, in addition to grade inflation. Students could earn points reading, writing and attending guest lectures, presentations and forums. Moreover, I told them, they could earn more credit if their online portfolios wowed me. This was an opportunity for seniors to work for themselves and create a project that would help them secure a job upon graduation.
To be honest, though, some stereotypes about today’s digital natives were true, initially at least. For instance, I posted all of my lectures, journal exercises, recordings, videos and presentations on "myethicsclass.com" — interesting, isn’t it, that I could buy that domain? I also posted reviews for exams whose answers were available 24/7 via Internet. (After the abysmal midterm exam, students realized the importance of “read, read, read.”)
While students consumed technology, many in the class did not know basic HTML or CSS. I had to create a slideshow tutorial to help them with final projects. I also scheduled one-on-one advising sessions to fix glitches in their online portfolios, using the computer as an excuse to interact with and get to know students interpersonally.
They did have trouble thinking critically. I had not fully anticipated how much this skill had been undermined by technology, which tends to provide answers rather than processes. I went as far as giving "critical thinking" prizes every time a student correctly applied an ethics tenet. Throughout the semester, I gave only four such prizes — a personalized pad and pen.
Students made up for lack of critical thinking with a keen visual sense and entrepreneurial talent, as evidenced in their ethics portfolios.
What surprised me in my substitute semester was how efficient teaching had become because of technology, if one knows how to use it for educational purposes.
In a few weeks I managed an entire course revision, updating lectures and using search engines, online libraries and databanks to find everything that I needed at a mere click of a button — something my students had mastered but occasionally misused, not being able to tell critically the veracity or authenticity of a site.
Better still, I didn’t have to pay travel expenses for experts to speak to my classes, affirming my lectures and lessons. I could Skype them in to do just that. For instance I called on Jeffrey Howe, a former media ethics student at Ohio and now an assistant professor at Northeastern University, to critique students’ online ethics portfolio. (Howe also writes for Wired and is creator of the concept of "crowdsourcing," also discussed in my class.)
I could provide links to news shows and historic moments and then show them in class. Discussing the power of the conscience, we viewed a journalism video on YouTube about "Tank Man," who stopped a line of tanks during the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square.
A Chinese student in ethics class had never seen the Tank Man video before. “This is why I came to study in America,” she said.
Later in the semester I showed a powerful CNN video about the Kent State uprising. Several of my American students had never heard about this before, especially as told through the eyes of the student journalists who covered the fatal shootings in 1970.
Another of my Chinese students remarked about the similarities between Tiananmen and Kent State uprisings. (She got a critical thinking pad and pen, by the way.)
I could check stats on the class blog to see how many students were reading posts. I could communicate with them throughout the week, using social networks and Blackboard, commenting on current affairs and sending links to augment times in class when questions arose or tangents were taken.
Case in point: We were studying the concept of "freedom of conscience" when I mentioned the bravery of 22-year-old Sophie Scholl, part of a journalism resistance group, "The White Rose," that harangued Nazis in World War II with philosophy-based newsletters about social justice.
I provided links to her life and then purchased from Amazon several copies of the DVD, "Sophie Scholl — The Final Days." Several students checked out the video and others found it on Netflix.
A transfer student who watched clips from the movie confessed that Scholl made her feel insignificant because she wanted to be as brave as her and make a contribution to society, although she doubted she would ever do so.
"Remember the Franklin dream," I told her. "He could have been speaking about you."
She smiled in recognition.
That gave me an idea. In time for the next class I acquired a 1787 coin that Franklin purportedly designed, the "Fugio" cent, and passed it around the class. “You are holding history,” I said. Then we explicated mottos on the coin whose obverse inscription, “Fugio,” is Latin for "I flee," referring to the blink of linear time. The obverse has another motto — “Mind your business” — which symbolizes “industry” and also bespeaks the entrepreneurial genius of today’s students. The reverse has 13 interlocking links, representing the original colonies, with the inscription, “We are one.” This affirms unity.
At that moment, teacher and students were one, thanks again to Benjamin Franklin.
When the term ended, many students met their grading goals by attending extra-credit events. Fewer than 10 students earned C- to F, a typical distribution.
I will keep teaching media ethics. My substitute semester helped me understand the challenges and needs of faculty. I will do all I can to provide resources.
As for dreams, my Franklin visitation probably says more about me than about teaching. However, his message about reading is as essential as ever if we are to help students realize their own dreams and contribute more to society.
In my substitute semester I learned there is still no substitute for that.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and winners of the Clifford G. Christians Awards for Research in Media Ethics.
"Her mother was to read it when it was written; that was understood to be the agreement between them; but there would be no reason why she should not be alone when she wrote it. She could word it very differently, she thought, if she sat alone over it in her own bedroom, than she could do immediately under her mother's eye. She could not pause and think and perhaps weep over it, sitting at the parlour table, with her mother in her arm-chair, close by, watching her.” -- Anthony Trollope, Rachel Ray (Ch. 20)
“Why can’t I write it at home?” asks Shauna.
By reflex, I patiently explain, “You’re going to have to write the exams in class, so it’s good practice.” I see, however, that there are plenty of distractions in our room: the air-conditioning pumps outside the window that are churning; the coffee bar down the hall luring us with its aromas; allergy-plagued Victor with his snortings and snufflings; I with my paper-shuffling; Linda and her eye-sucking cell phone on her lap.
And I know my developmental English students are particularly vulnerable to distractions. They can, like human soufflés, sink into themselves and disappear into their sweatshirts, or, ever- anxious and nervous, can flit and start like deer in the forest, alarmed at the slightest noise.
On the other hand, I discovered long ago when I first started teaching that writing is not so intimidating an activity if everyone else in the room is doing it. And there’s that phenomenon of students of all abilities writing more grammatically and coherently when they’re under the pressure of writing against time, competitively with their classmates, their pens sprinting along -- not being so prone to pause and sink into the grammar-bogs of their native languages or idioms. Quick steps seem to keep us in rhythm even on the winding, bumpy track of writing.
And yet … we professors almost never write in these conditions. My developmental students, the least agile writers and readers, must dance in public through hoops because, before admittance to the college, they failed so miserably at reading and writing. On exam days, they radiate anxiety and I find myself, in my whispered instructions, "Relax! Relax!" that I’m really instead radiating hyper-concerned anxiety right back at them.
So during the semester I try to get everyone accustomed to writing under the gun; writing and reading when none of us want to; writing on and reading topics of no special interest!
"I don’t wanna lie and say I care about community gardens,” says Larry.
“Don’t lie," I say. "Just pretend you’re somebody who does care. Your aunt. The retired schoolteacher down the block."
"Pretending isn’t lying, professor?"
I smile. "No, we call it … fiction."
At the end of every in-class writing assignment, a student will ask, "Can I take it home? I promise I’ll write more than I could here."
"Just try. You have a few more minutes — you can’t take it home."
With exams that I give my second-year students, who have no system- or departmentwide grading to face, I tell them they can write wherever they want to write -- in the hallway, in the library, at the bus stop; they only have to be back by whatever time everyone else is going to finish. I don't really think it's important that they be under my eye. Someone's going to help them write about the very particular and personal points of our many readings? I doubt it. And as I have to admit, they’ve written so much for me already that I know the peculiarities of their writing better than I know the features of their handsome and pretty faces. Yes, I truly believe I can sniff out anything they might borrow from the Internet.
But I want the developmental students to stay put, because out of the classroom is an escape, and they need to get used to not escaping. They need to get used to settling down to work in a noisy environment. They need to learn to shut out their friend sitting next to them.
Yet I'm probably asking too much.
In Trollope’s great Rachel Ray, Rachel needs to write a letter of renunciation to her fiancé -- her mother and her minister have said she should, and so she will. But she needs to do it on her own terms. If they're to tell her what to write, and if her mother is going to have a look at it before she sends it, she needs some space of her own to weep over it. She loves Luke Rowan, and she believes in him, and only a few weeks earlier she had received her mother's and the minister's blessings to love him. She would not have loved him otherwise. Now, due to some plot twists, the authority figures of her life have changed their minds, but she has not changed her heart.
Now, we all know, particularly with developmental writers, that there are matters close to their hearts that are shocking to them as they spill out on the paper.
For instance, Yvonne, regal-looking, sits in the front row, off to the right, by the window, and, 10 minutes into an exam, sits and stares ahead into some middle space. And as I look at her, she seems so distant, so transformed, that I say, "Are you O.K., Yvonne?"
And she looks up, as if waking from a dream, and answers my confounding interference with, "As a matter of fact, I was thinking, professor!"
Most of them write as well as they can in spite of the distractions. Yvonne seems to block us out, to see only the situation she’s imagining. When I discreetly glance at her again, she is writing, brows knitted, her lips parted, almost gasping, her eyes watery.
Next time, I’ll give her some privacy.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
Toward the end of one summer — 1994, to be precise — I arrived at St. Lawrence University as an 18-year-old freshman, excited yet nervous to begin my college career. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer someday, though I didn’t really have an idea of what that would entail or how difficult it would be. I wasn’t particularly anxious about the classes I would be taking — though in hindsight, judging by my grades that first semester, I probably should have been.
No, my concerns were more social in nature. Would I like my roommate? Who would become my friends? Would the people who promised in my high school yearbook that we would be "friends forever" still matter to me, and I to them, by the time we saw each other again at Thanksgiving? Would I finally have sex? The answer to these questions were: Not particularly, a bunch of people, some, and no.
The last answer was the most devastating, to the freshman me, but all in all, that first year of college was a good experience. I read King Lear. I learned from my new female friends that feminists were not, as I had been led to believe, castrating man-haters. I saw my first Kurosawa film. I attended several meetings of the Black Student Union — for the first time, I experienced what it’s like to be the only white person in a room. I was in a play. I perfected my impressions of both R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, in order to entertain my friends on Friday nights fueled by cheap beer and Boone’s Farm "wine products." I read memoirs and essays by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Piri Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston that created and nourished my interest in creative nonfiction forms.
As that first year came to a close, I was a little stressed by final exams and papers, and somewhat concerned that I’d never get a girlfriend. Mostly, though, I thought college was an exciting, intellectually challenging, and fun place to be, and I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. So, with the exception of a short break due to some health issues, I really didn’t — I went to grad school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and have been employed on college campuses ever since.
I’ve recently returned to my beloved alma mater — which I’ve written about for Inside Higher Edbefore — in order to teach creative writing and literature. This one-year visiting position came along at a time when, to be honest, I had been thinking about getting out of the academy altogether. Although I still loved teaching and writing and developing as a scholar and thinker, I had begun to feel, at the very least, like I did not belong — and could not stay — at the college where I had been working since 2008. There were many reasons for this feeling, but the important point is that I realized that I was unhappy where I was — that this was not the job I thought it would be. Worse still, I began to fear that the problem wasn’t that specific location, but rather that I’m not cut out for this line of work. So I returned to the scene of the crime, the place where I first learned to love literature, writing, and the academic life.
In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White talks of returning to the lake where his father used to take the family on vacations, this time as a grown man with a son of his own. The essay is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, but kind of funny for his insistence that this place is just as he remembered it, even though he gives a list of things that have changed. "I could tell," he notes after observing the fact that the road leading to the camp was now paved, "that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before....” Or when talking about the nearby store: "Inside, all was as it had been, except...." Or the waitresses who serve them their pie, who were "the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain — the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference — they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair."
Different, but the same. Timeless, yet pushed forward in time. I didn’t really understand White’s disorientation until I returned to St. Lawrence. As White returns to the lake as a father, I’ve returned to St. Lawrence as a professor. He feels, at times, his own father next to him — or perhaps within him, as if he has become his father by bringing his son to this place. I teach in "The Shakespeare Room" in Richardson Hall, dedicated to Emeritus Professor of English Thomas L. Berger, my own Shakespeare professor from 15 years ago, whose blown-up photograph hangs on the wall to my left as I do my best to lead a discussion on Emily Dickinson.
Professor Berger isn’t really beside me, just as White’s father is not with him, yet his presence on that wall reminds me of what type of professor I want to be — erudite, funny, and maybe a little bit intimidating to students who haven’t done the reading.
On days when it’s not too cold — and here in New York’s North Country, those days can be few and far between this time of year — I like to walk around campus. I made a point of showing my wife the dorm I lived in freshman year, where I met the friend who would later ask me to be the godfather to her son. I walked through the building that now houses the theater and fine arts department, but that used to be the student union, where we would occasionally get pizza or burgers at the Northstar Pub, which stopped selling beer after my freshman year but was still called "The Pub" when I graduated. The new student union — located in a more centralized area of campus — houses the Northstar Café, but the students still call it "The Pub" for reasons that are probably a complete mystery to them.
As I was walking home from a poetry reading on campus one night last semester, a student smoking in front of his dorm called out "Dr. Bradley!" and walked toward me in order to talk about class. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I almost asked him for one. It seemed like the thing to do. Smoke a cigarette, talk about what you’d been reading. How many times did I do just that with my friends? Those actors and singers and painters and writers who were all so into this world they were just discovering. How many cigarettes did I smoke, talking about Uta Hagen, or Annie Dillard, or Quentin Tarantino? Of course, we smoked inside, back then. It was the '90s. A different era.
White notes that the souvenir counters at the store offer "postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked," which is sometimes how the past seems when we reflect. If I talk of loving college, I should also tell you that I frequently drove myself crazy, putting the finishing touches on a paper at 4:30 when it was due at 5:00, then running around campus with a disk in hand, trying to find an available printer (again, it was the '90s). There were those times, towards the end of the semester, when — out of money on my meal card — I had to eat sandwiches made of generic white bread and processed cheese slices for every meal. And there were the romantic relationships. They all started out fun, but frequently ended with someone crying.
Still, if the experience was sometimes painful, it was also always educational. I wouldn’t want to trade those experiences or forget those lessons — they’ve shaped the writer, teacher, friend, and husband I am today. And something about this experience of being back on this campus has reminded me — and I’m shocked that I needed to be reminded — that my students are having those very same experiences right now. They’re reading something that’s going to change their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re learning not to send e-mails drunk. They’re listening to the Velvet Underground for the very first time. They’re figuring out who they’re going to be as they begin their adult lives.
So much is different. Everything’s the same.
In my previous Inside Higher Ed column, I talked about remembering my own youthful mistakes when I find myself frustrated with my students. I’m glad to have such perspective — it sometimes saves my sanity — but I’m also glad to remember how awesome it was to be young, to be humbled by the realization that there was so much out there to learn. I had lost some of that enthusiasm in the years since my own undergrad days, but being here, seeing and identifying with these students, has caused me to remember. As a 21st-century academic, it’s awfully easy to get nervous and jaded — it seems like every day, someone from outside of the academy is throwing around words and phrases like "strategic dynamism," "innovative disruption" or "paradigm shift" that don’t really mean anything to me except that the speaker or author doesn’t think very highly of the work we do in the academy, or at least the way we do it. I frequently feel embattled or unappreciated, but this year at my old school has reminded me that I didn’t go to grad school to make politicians or business leaders like me. I went because I wanted to help young people have the same life-changing experience I had.
It’s cold here in Canton right now — one day this week, it didn’t even get above zero — but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity happening on campus. There are informational meetings for students interested in studying abroad in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There’s a screening of the film "Argo." The student organization dedicated to environmental activism is having a vegetarian dinner, open to all interested students. There are athletic events. And, of course, there are classes. I’m not saying that these are activities special to St. Lawrence — I’m sure if you work on a college campus, similar stuff is happening around you. But sometimes, I think, the stress of our jobs causes us to forget what an awesome place a vibrant campus can be.
At the end of White’s essay, he talks of feeling "the chill of death" as he watches his son prepare to swim in the rain, but my recent experience with students at my alma mater has reminded me of how powerful it can be, to be surrounded by the warmth of lives that are really just beginning. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months, but I’m glad for having learned this lesson this year.
William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.
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.