On managing my small classes

I have two very small, five to seven students each, upper division classes this term. By itself this is not that strange. As a department, geography contributes more in service to other programs than it does in majors. As a result, we usually have one or two sections of upper division courses that enroll slow or low, which administrators tend to measure as below ten or below twelve depending on context and what kinds of pressures are being applied from above. My areas, political and cultural geography, tend to be the least popular among our majors (and minors), meaning that it isn’t unusual for me to have smaller classes than my colleagues at the 300 and 400 level.

What is unusual is just how low my enrollments are this term (also that they have been allowed to run despite their sizes, but that is side topic which I will skip here). To be honest, in one case, a course on U.S. and Canadian geopolitics, I am not that surprised at the small number. I can track a clear downward trajectory from the first time I offered it to now. In the other case, a course on nature and the American West, I am surprised. That course is part of a “suite” of three that I offer on the West, and all have been generally popular, not for any mysterious reason, but because they fulfill requirements in a number of programs across campus and also address issues that are real to many of our students.

I will have to give some more thought to the “why” of my numbers this term for when I next offer these courses, or related ones, but in the meantime I needed to come up with a strategy for teaching them at their current sizes.

That small classes are “good” is taken as a given almost in higher education, but I don’t think I am alone in finding that there is such a thing as a class that is “too small”.

From my perspective, a class is too small when you need almost 100% attendance to have a chance at a viable session, or, put another way, a class is too small if its absolute size is effectively equal to its relative size. What I mean by that is in most classes you’ll end up with a critical mass of engaged students who make the course work. Ideally, in my experience, that should be at least a third of total enrollment, but you can get by with fewer. As you slide down that scale, though, the harder it is to have a good meeting if you have absences. If the critical mass of engaged students is too small, the wrong absences can kill a session. The smaller the class, the smaller your margin for having a good meeting. Essentially, if you need to count on everyone in attendance to be fully present and making contributions, productive class meetings are going to be nearly impossible to hold.

To manage this problem with my classes this term I made the decision to run them as tutorials or readings courses. The syllabus is structured around a reading list, which I have broken into weekly assignments. Students stay in touch with me through writing on each and every reading each week, to which I provide follow-up questions that students have to answer and submit with the following week’s reading and writing. Unusually for me, I decided to have a traditional mid-term, final structure, too, as a way to prompt students to do some synthetic work with the material. Each class also has an additional small assignment that uses the class blog.

The blogs are one way I give students an opportunity to communicate with me about material. I am also available in my office, and on IM, during scheduled class hours. However, students need to make their own decisions about when to come talk to me and take advantage of my availability.

It’s early in the term, but I have some initial thoughts on how this arrangement is working.

To begin, I have been gratified at how many students have, in fact, consulted with me about the material. I have rarely, if ever, had students at this university contact me as individuals to talk about readings. I doubt very much that this would be happening if we were having regular meetings. In this context, students are forced to think about the material on their own, and that has, so far, prompted some interesting dialogue.

The way that reading assignments are working I am also giving more intensive individualized feedback and follow-through than I normally do when I am otherwise preparing for class meetings. In fact, it seems likely that the time I am devoting to dealing with students one-on-one this term will be equal to or in excess of the time I would normally devote to class prep, especially with established courses like these.

I am concerned about the students I have not, and probably will not, hear from during the term. Where I am getting good written work, I guess that is less of a concern, but students who are turning in work that I have doubts about are ones I worry about. The follow-up question assignment gives me one way to address this concern, but that only goes so far.

During the early add/drop period I picked up a few additional students in the American West class and was tempted to call everybody back to the ranch so I could start holding regular meetings. That course, and its companions, as well as similar offerings I have taught in the past, have to led to some really interesting classes and I do feel that I am missing something by having a structure built around individual study. The U.S. and Canada course I am more at ease with in terms of teaching it this way. Even though it is at the upper division, there is a lot of basic material I need to cover in order to make up for how little my students tend to know about Canada. If anything, teaching it the way I am is forcing students to address those deficits in an active way.

In a couple of weeks, I will be meeting with both groups to talk about the mid-term. It will be interesting for students to see each other, and for me to review with them to get another sense of how well they are learning.

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One thought on “On managing my small classes

  1. Teaching updates: intro course and small classes | A Weird Fish

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