Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Class size does make a difference

I have been taking a math course to complete the requirements for the MA in Secondary Math Education. I signed up for a course that had a prerequisite that I (and several others in the class) wasn't aware of, but because the class only has about 10 students, the professor realized this problem and used more time than he had planned to cover the prerequite material. He looked at us while he was teaching, and if we had puzzled faces he'd reteach the concept in a different way. We all felt comfortable enough to say, "wait a minute. Where did you get that equation from?"
But despite his help, I discovered I really needed the prerequisite course, and found that I would be allowed to swap the one for the other - after four weeks. The teacher of the new course graciously allowed me to start at that point with homework assignments. But the class is large, with 38 students in a large auditorium. It is very hard to see the board if I'm late and can't sit up front. He talks softly, so he's also hard to hear. He covers what he's writing on the board while he's writing, so we have to rush to copy it when he's through, and his comments about what he's writing don't make sense until we can see it. But the major problem is that he has no way of knowing how hard it is for us to understand, because we are so many, spread out too far. He asks very few questions to check for understanding, and is happy if someone answers correctly.
High school classes are getting up to 40 students these days, admittedly crowded together in smaller classrooms, so no one is so far from the board or the teacher. But it is really difficult to be aware of each student's needs in such a large group.
When I taught in Denmark, the union had negotiated maximum class sizes of 28, which always seemed large. However, we could easily fit those 28 students in a U-shape with a few desks inside, so everyone could see each other and I could easily approach each student. Second and third year classes, they were often much smaller, as the students could specialize to certain interests. I had many classes under 20. There was no problem getting to know each student and ensuring that everyone had a say in classroom discussions.
I am looking forward to having my own classroom, but not to having 5 classes with 40 students each (200 students and their parents to get to know.) Certainly it takes an especially talented teacher to reach all of her many students in today's large classes!

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