Small Classes and the Liberal Arts College

The¬†Chronicle has a new piece up¬†exploring the links between class size and learning. It quotes Dan Chambliss, who, as usual, offers useful thoughts about the ways the data has been misinterpreted in ways that mislead us about a given student’s experience. I now teach entirely small classes (or up to the small side of medium), but I took some fantastic large classes as a university undergraduate. My thoughts about the Chronicle piece:

  • The messiness of the data strikes me as compatible with a very simple idea: a small-group learning environment is essential or at least transformative for some kinds of learning but not a big deal for others. I’ve lived in the middle of course scheduling and space planning for many years now, and I see statements to this effect frequently from my colleagues: class X can be as larger, but class Y needs to be capped.
  • Students at Grinnell College generally chose the liberal arts college model because they want to be in small classes. But when they have a choice between being, say, the 26th person in a class with a certain professor or the 5th person in a class with a new professor they don’t know, in my experience, they will almost always choose the former–and other factors such as time of day will win out over class size as well. I have seen many students express their appreciation of smaller class sizes (even among our universally smallish classes); I have almost never seen a student select a class because it is smaller than another. I therefore perceive a large gap between stated and revealed preferences.
  • The primary advantage of small classes may be their ability to gives students the experience of close mentoring in their scholarly or creative work, either during the semester or afterwards. If so, it may make sense to sprinkle a few large classes in a curriculum to enable more students to experience that kind of close mentoring, and I’ve heard that model suggested many times. My sense, however, is that most people drastically underestimate the difficulty of creating a new large class in a culture dominated by smaller ones. If any of you readers have heard of successful recent efforts to create such classes, I’d love to hear about them.
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