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The smallest class I ever taught had three students. The largest I ever taught had 173. In both cases, I felt guilty. In the small class I felt like I was being overcompensated, and in the large class I felt quite sure the students would have gotten more from the class if it had been smaller.

Although both of these experiences were at previous schools, I teach now at the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred, where our 20:1 student/teacher ratio is one of the best in the State University system, and our college Web site emphasizes small class size as one of the many reasons to consider Alfred State.

When faculty here engage in periodic discussions of workload, class size arises repeatedly as a factor that leads both to the success of our students and, unfortunately for faculty, to the need to teach many class sections. (Obviously, the smaller the average class, the more individual class sections are needed to teach the same number of students.) Inevitably, the discussion is cast as a struggle between having high-quality student learning and increasing class size, with the underlying assumption, accepted by all, that these two are mutually exclusive.

Even those who suggest that increased class size is acceptable for particular sections and subjects do not normally argue that students will learn more in these inflated sections; rather, the argument is typically made that the current standard for student learning can be maintained. In all cases, however, the underlying assumption is unchallenged: Large class size is a “problem” that needs to be minimized or mitigated, because smaller classes are better.

Setting aside for a moment whether this assumption is true, it is worthwhile to review how this assumption came to be. The transformation of higher education in the United States during the 20th century is probably a familiar one. Speaking very broadly, in the early part of the century college education was reserved for a much smaller group of people than it is afforded to today. Those who went to college were largely people of privilege and/or perceived intelligence, and for economic or cultural reasons most other people did not attend college. Following the Second World War, the GI Bill allowed (and encouraged) many to attend college who otherwise would have difficulty attending. The number of students increased, colleges grew to accommodate the growth, and the opportunity to go to college was pushed farther and farther into socioeconomic groups that previously were not traditionally college students.

Anyone who doesn't think this is a good outcome, I would suggest, is nutty. But the transformation brought with it a set of changes, and one of them was a growth in the size of college classes. We see this change in its most extreme forms in the large universities that host Introduction to Psychology or comparable subjects in large lecture halls that seat 300 students. There isn’t even a pretense that one teacher can effectively teach such a large set of students or that the arrangement is ideal; the teacher is equipped with a fleet of teaching “assistants,” and often the class is divided up into smaller sections for part of the weekly instruction, with the smaller sections taught by the assistants. The assistants often divide up the grading as well. Such situations are accepted as a necessary evil that accompanies the large university. I’m not going to argue in favor of such arrangements; I think the educational value of such a classroom setting is dubious when compared to some of the alternatives.

But does this mean that small class size is always desirable? What is fascinating about this question is how little serious effort has been expended to answer it. The truth is that given the importance of educational quality, it is noteworthy how little work has been done to establish whether increased class size in itself is always a detriment.

The factors that affect student learning are many, varied, and are certainly not all presently known. So by necessity, when we talk about models for showing how student learning occurs, our models will be ludicrously oversimplified. But if we assume that student learning is the product of two factors a and b, where a stands for class size and b stands for the sum of every other possible factor, we get the simple equation:

a x b = student learning

I grant that any experienced teacher would see such a reduction of the formula as misleadingly simplistic, but it is a necessary simplification for the point I want to make. Let us further assume that the product of these two factors ("student learning") can be represented on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 represents that no learning has occurred and 10 represents the maximum learning that could occur (to put it in modern parlance, all of the learning objectives have been met). Let us further assume that a can be represented simply by identifying the number of students in the class. The question we must ask is this: no matter what the number of students in the class, is there a possible value for b that would yield a product of 10? The answer, of course, is Yes. In other words, if the product you want is 10, the value for a does not matter as long as the correct value for b is used.

At this point the analogy is going to break down, because the factors that affect student learning do not work like standard multiplication. (If they did, student learning would not be the mystery that it is.) But all analogies break down eventually; the successful ones simply make their point before the breakdown occurs. Class size clearly matters if all other variables remain the same, but the other variables need not remain the same and should not remain the same. The assumption that small class size is always desirable is the same as the assumption that no value can be found for b when a is a large number. But upon what would such an assumption be based? Before we arrogantly respond that the assumption is based on years of experience teaching, consider the many times in history that our predictions of what was possible or not possible turned out to be merely a pretentious avowal of our convictions, soon to be proven false by some person who was willing to search for solutions rather than to assume that solutions simply do not exist. Adding to the suspicion that resistance has little basis in experience, there is strong evidence that many professors continue to teach in ways that have been proven to be less effective than other available methods. Derek Bok and others have argued that educators spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing what students should be taught and an insufficient amount of time discussing how students should be taught.

Let’s try another analogy. Cars can be manufactured by hand or using an automated system. Originally, cars made by hand were of higher quality and reliability than mass-produced cars. (Everyone of a certain age can remember the 1970s experience of driving a car out of the dealership and having a radio button fall off before the car got home.) Today, this is no longer the case. Modern mass-manufacturing methods ensure that a Toyota is more mechanically reliable than a Ferrari. The Toyota will have fewer manufacturing defects, will drive farther before breaking down, and needs less regular maintenance. The move to mass manufacturing was by necessity; there were more cars needed than could be produced by hand.

But the results of mass production were less than satisfactory, and the automakers competed to find better and better ways to mass-produce cars. Automakers became so good at this that now the best mass-produced cars are of higher quality than custom-built cars. Students are not cars, but I would suggest that learning cannot be mass-produced using methods designed for custom, small-scale instruction. The state of American higher education instruction is akin to auto manufacturing in the 1970s: High-volume output is necessary, but higher ed hasn’t figured out a way to produce that volume in a way that isn’t simply an expansion of the small-scale method.

The current tension between large classes and educational outcomes is an inevitable outcome between two incompatible ideas: Large-scale education delivery using methods designed for small-scale instruction. Educators know that traditional teaching techniques and large-scale instruction are incompatible, but shy away from examining radically different teaching methods because maintaining the status quo is easier than implementing massive change in their day-to-day teaching methods.

My purpose in this essay is not to defend large classes. My purpose is to demonstrate that a decision to offer large classes or to avoid them requires a much larger set of commitments that are rarely discussed. You’d think that large universities would be heavily invested in finding new ways to teach large numbers of students while increasing student learning, but they’re not. You’d think that the current demands of higher education would have driven substantial research into methods of increasing learning while increasing class size, but it has not. What is needed is for those schools and communities that would benefit from the results of such research to fund it and to encourage it. The research may or may not be fruitful, but like any research we cannot know this before we begin. If we are to serve tomorrow’s college students by producing better and better graduates, if we are to charge tuition increases that perpetually exceed inflation, and if we are to continue the noble cause of expanding the circle of those who attend college, that serious research needs to begin now.

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