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Monday, October 25, 2021

Finding the ideal class size

The issue of class size is far from being as black and white as it may have once seemed. While students are usually concerned about class size, many aren’t aware of the effect it has on professors and their teaching style.

UC Davis professors and administrators point out that there are both benefits and downfalls to different classroom environments. The general consensus is that large classes present problems for all parties involved, said Jim McClain, the associate dean of the College of Letters and Science.

Most students have difficulty with the larger introductory classes and respond better to more interactive environments. Students become intimidated in larger classes and do not ask questions, McClain said.

Teachers also have a harder time in these large lecture halls. They have trouble making eye contact with students, and as a result, are often forced to guess whether or not they are explaining concepts well enough.

McClain notes that these large classes require a certain technique in order to maintain the students’ attention.

“When you get up in front of large groups you need to become somewhat of an entertainer in order to properly engage the majority of the people,” he said.

The lecture hall environment lacks the intimacy needed for strong student-teacher relationships, so humor frequently serves as a necessary substitution. Small enrollment classes depend less on the professor’s success as an entertainer, and more on the ability to truly connect with students.

McClain maintains that it is also easier to understand the students in small classes. Much of the professor’s effectiveness depends on interpreting student signals as a gauging mechanism.

“Students will let you know whether or not they are following along with their body language, questions and dirty looks. You don’t get those indicators in large classes,” McClain said.

Large classes are not all bad news, though. UC Davis faculty members are required to do research and public service. Professors can have fewer sections if they lump them all into one large class, allowing more time for research.

“Part of the appeal of taking classes at UC Davis comes from being able to interact with top-notch researchers. There are professors at UC Davis that have been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences, and some have received the MacArthur Fellowship Award,” McClain said. Students do not get the opportunity to interact with these highly coveted researchers in smaller classes.

Many teachers claim, however, that dealing with small classes is actually far from easy. Chunxia Wang, a lecturer of Chinese, believes lecturing in front of large classes can be a lot less stressful.

“It’s difficult to tell whether or not students are following along in big lecture halls, so most professors end up zooming through PowerPoint slides,” Wang said.

Since many students feel intimidated in large lecture classes, they don’t ask a lot of questions. According to Wang, the task is relatively easy while smaller classes present an entirely different set of challenges.

“The professor’s teaching style must conform to every student’s needs in order for things to run smoothly in the classroom,” Wang said.

Professors often feel some pressure to find the optimal pace for the class, so quicker learners can stay occupied while slower learners are not left behind. Having to adjust lesson plans and class schedules due to a lack of response from students can be discouraging, thus affecting the teacher’s performance in the classroom. The teacher needs to have a good sense of balance to ensure student progress.

Most faculty members are now required to teach a certain number of students per year, said Scott Shershow, a professor of English. This has affected the classes he teaches.

“In our department, we are trying to offer a few relatively large classes as a way of being also able to offer some smaller classes. Usually, each faculty member gets to have both smaller and larger classes,” Shershow said.

Measures taken by the school to help professors reach their student quotas will inevitably expose professors to classroom settings that they may not be used to. In this case, experience may prove to be the best teacher.

“I enjoy teaching both lecture classes and seminars, and I hope I’m effective in both situations,” Shershow said.

With this new requirement, professors face increased exposure to all sorts of classroom environments. This allows them to learn and experiment with what works and what doesn’t, improving their teaching and students’ learning experiences.

EDMOND HARE can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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