Dangerous Discussions

Class Size


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Class Size - A Dangerous Discussion?

Options for Effective Online/Hybrid/Blended Teaching & Learning In "Larger" Classes
[In any size classes?]

This Website offers a variety of strategies, activities, and other resources to help you explore some of the important and challenging aspects of class size:  student/faculty ratio;  faculty workload;  student workload; learning styles;  teaching styles;  technology options;  faculty governance;... 

Intro       More/Less Provocative Discussion Questions   

Factors that Influence Class Size       Feedback Form

Other Resources    

Introduction:  Class Size, Dangerous Discussions, Clothing the Emperor

There are many ways to structure a discussion about class size and the quality of learning/teaching in online and hybrid/blended courses.  There are almost as many different motivations and goals for addressing these issues as there are stakeholders in the results of the dialogue.  Some approaches are more likely to facilitate civil and constructive dialogue.  Others are more likely to bury opportunities for real solutions.

We hope that this Web page, and our Clothing the Emperor approach to Dangerous Discussions, can help replace incorrect, inflammatory, extreme statements/views with realistic, civil, constructive conversations about class size in online and hybrid/blended courses with the dual goals of both implementing practical results and developing useful policies.  But the first challenge is to identify which stakeholders need to be represented in a constructive "Dangerous Discussions" about class size within your institution, and be sure they are invited and likely to participate.

Of course, Web pages CANNOT be enough by themselves for these purposes; but we hope that this one can be a valuable resource when used effectively in workshops and other collaborative activities.

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Discussion Activity:  More/Less Provocative Questions
Alternate ways of asking questions about class size
- 6 Versions & 1 Comment

Which versions are more/less inflammatory? 
For whom?  Under what conditions?

Which versions are more conducive to constructive results? 
For whom?  Under what conditions?

  1. How can learning be improved in online and hybrid/blended courses without reducing student/faculty ratio or increasing the workload for teachers or students?  
    Under what conditions?

  2. In which courses and in which ways can information technology be used more effectively to increase the size of classes and reduce the number/duration of face-to-face meetings without reducing the quality of teaching and learning?  
    Without further overburdening faculty and academic support staff?  
    Without major external funding?  Without speculative restructuring?
    Without seeing the emperor's clothes!

  3. How, if at all, can technology be used to reduce operating costs without sacrificing educational quality or the life expectancy of faculty?

  4. How can large enrollment online classes be managed more effectively (e.g., 30-50 students in a doctoral level course)

  5. “I usually meet face-to-face with 10-20 students in the courses I teach at this college, and I really enjoy the lively – and often thoughtful - discussions. I know I’m lucky. I put my course syllabi on the Web, and often assign Web-based resources to my students. Are there really any ways of adding online interaction that would be any improvement?”

  6. How can we match conditions, goals, resources, and techniques for effective online teaching and learning with different sized classes?

  • Comment from Tom Marino, Temple Univ, 3/10/2005:
    “I had to chuckle when I saw your 4th version.  Right now we are teaching a completely online class to 120 students.  It turns out it is more work than in the past when it was face to face.  I guess I can’t imagine upscaling it without it taking an inordinate amount of time.  That is unless we start decreasing the faculty to student feedback.  Then we would not be able to call it education, just training.”

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Factors, Resources, ... that Influence Making Class Size Larger (or Smaller)

Which of these factors needs more explanation?  Which are most important to you? 
Which are most relevant at your institution?
What needs to be added to or removed from this list?

    Institutional Mission, Expectations, Goals (for Courses, Faculty, Students)
    (Course Purpose, Nature;  Consequences of Learning/Missing Material)


    Institutional Policies (e.g., minimum attendance); Sampling, etc. Cohorts;  A Different Kind of Diversity - Variations in Students' Need for Teacher Attention

    Institutional Resources;  Instructional Materials
    Support Services,  Infrastructure, ..Instructional Materials readily available from .... sources internal, external, professional organizations, publishers, colleagues;  .

    Individuals & Collaboration

    Includes different styles, needs, workload, capabilities, attitudes of faculty

    Individuals & Cohorts [Click here for more about Learning/Teaching Cohorts]
    Includes different styles, needs, workload, capabilities, attitudes of learners

  • Other?

The list above can be used as context or background when introducing a discussion of the following:

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  • Learner Responsibility (small group work; learning by teaching)
    Extent to which students can learn effectively by working independently or in small groups;  extent to which students can learn more deeply or broadly by teaching their peers in a course - especially within small groups...

  • “Student Development” [Training students in learning techniques they can apply in most courses... Meta-cognition, …]

  • Characteristics: of Individuals - Both Learners and Teachers
    Of individual learners; of particular group(s) of learners; .[possibly reflective of stereotypical attributes of group - e.g., comp. sci. majors as asocial non-verbal geeks, ...] vs. Ability to work independently - to enjoy and take advantage of flexible schedule & pace

  • Workload
    How will any changes in teaching/learning processes affect the learners' workloads?  How will they respond to increases or decreases in their workloads?


  • Over-Conscientious Faculty
    Faculty members who set standards too high for themselves and/or for their students;  e.g., expecting to interact individually with every student every day...

  • Under-Conscientious Faculty
    Faculty members who set standards too low for themselves and/or for their students;  e.g., not initiating enough interaction with individual students to avoid being surprised when someone drops out of the course or fails an important assignment when it is too late to catch up.

  • Characteristics: of Individuals - Both Learners and Teachers
    Of individual teachers;  of particular group(s) of teachers; .[possibly reflective of stereotypical attributes of group - e.g., comp. sci. faculty as asocial non-verbal geeks, ...] vs. Ability to work collaboratively - to enjoy and take advantage of teamwork in spite of reduce individual flexibility.

  • Workload
    How will any changes in teaching/learning processes affect the teachers' workloads?  How will they respond to increases or decreases in their workloads?


  • Expectations: Faculty, Students, Others?
    What is the maximum number of students acceptable for your course(s)?  Current Beliefs about Maximum Course Enrollment Activity/Worksheet - PDF

    Expectations about frequency, quality of interactions with...? 
    Expectations based primarily on previous personal experience? 
    Expectations based primarily on the influence of others, media, etc.?
    Extent to which students' expectations about course structures, assignments, collaborative learning, etc. make it easy or difficult for a teacher to guide and modify the kinds of individual interaction required for course-related activities.
    Extent to which faculty members' expectations about student behavior, preferences, and capabilities limit choices about teaching/learning activities that require different kinds and amounts of individual interaction between students and faculty.

  • Access vs. Delivery vs. Engagement  (Training vs. Educating?)
    Relevance of each major kind of teaching/learning (providing access to information, delivering knowledge, and engaging people).  How well do different combinations of them fit with different teaching/learning situations?  For more on this,  click here.

  • Need to Build Trust
    To what extent is the success of an educational approach dependent on building trust among participants?

  • Demand for Course [specialized advanced vs. general education requirement; within small geographic area vs. worldwide]



  • Media & Communications (text vs. voice; tools for courses; tools for students; tools for faculty)

  • Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

  • Assessment Methodology related to ... [e.g., courses that appropriately depend on quantitative assessment, feedback, right/wrong answers vs. courses that depend on more verbal responses, etc. ]

  • T/L Methodology related to Content [e.g., lab sciences require more/less...? courses that require expository writing...?]

  • Sampling vs. Covering – Setting Reasonable Limits for Interaction in a Course
    Every teacher makes sampling decisions about almost every aspect of teaching and learning:   selecting a group of topics, a group of students' responses, some portions of students' work, some individual students, etc. to deal with as a meaningful representative of the full collection of such items or people.  For example, during a traditional classroom discussion, a teacher may invite only a few students to respond to a few questions about a reading assignment that was to be completed in preparation for the class.

    Traditionally this has applied primarily to choices about topics to be covered in assigned readings, discussions, laboratory work, and classroom presentations within a course.  However, educational conditions are changing so that teachers and learners have many more choices about what, how, and when to learn and to teach – and about what, how, and when to interact with each other.  The sampling decisions have become more important and more dangerous to leave to old habits and assumptions that may no longer apply.  For more on this, click here.

    • For an introduction to the broader concept of "incompleteness," click here.


  • Abstract vs. Concrete Courses

  • T/L Methodology related to Content [e.g., lab sciences require more/less...? courses that require expository writing...?]


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