The Pros and Cons of Small Classes

The Pros and Cons of Small Classes April 29, 2015

In both the academic classroom and the dance classroom, I’ve noticed that small class sizes present unique challenges and rewards.

Benefits

  • More time to engage with each student. In dance, this means more posture and technique corrections for everyone. In college, this means getting to interact directly with each student more.
  • The class material can be paced and arranged differently if it suits everyone. Due to the fractal nature of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, it’s possible to alternate between focusing on the individual movements or on the group structures of the dance in a given lesson. That gives me a lot of flexibility as an instructor, and with a small class of students, I can tailor the lesson to their level and their needs. Similarly, I can redirect a lesson plan in the academic classroom if a small-ish group of students has done the prep work and is ready to go to a new place.
  • I get to know each student better, both as individuals and in the context of their needs in the classroom. In dance classes, this means I can keep track of who has which injuries, who needs special attention to posture, and so on. In the academic classroom, this helps me remember everyone’s disciplinary background and call on them by name (because learning a new class’s names at the start of every semester can be tough!).

Challenges

  • When people don’t want to participate, a small class can stall. This is worse in the academic classroom than the dance classroom, I think, because in dance classes I can always come up with more drills and more ways to practice. In the college classroom, it’s hard to get people to talk if they don’t want to talk, and if there are fewer potential talkers, well, it’s more likely that there’ll be awkward silence.
  • Sometimes I talk too much. Because of the above point, where a class can stall if there are fewer people contributing, I might get nervous and go off on a tangent or rant. In my Trust and Teaching post, I talk about how teaching should always be about the students’ needs, not mine, but I sometimes lose sight of that in anxiety-inducing situations.
  • It can feel like there are too many possibilities for what to cover, and then I feel paralyzed with indecision. If I’ve got a small, smart group that’s doing the work, and we can talk about anything, then how do we choose what to talk about?

Overall, I enjoy teaching small classes, even though they present some distinct challenges. I feel like the personal engagement between instructor and student is part of the reason why face-to-face education (as opposed to online education) is effective. Small classes afford more of that engagement, so I’ll usually take a small class over a big class, challenges be damned!

***

Well, between this and my Taboo Topics in the Classroom post, that makes 2 teaching-related blog posts this month! I guess with the semester winding down at my university, I’ve got teaching on the brain. I had a really wonderful class full of very bright and engaged students this semester, so maybe this is my way of processing some of the learning I did alongside them.

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