An Argument for Smaller Classrooms

For the sake of the privacy and public image of the universities discussed in this text, I will not refer to them by name. As my words could easily be taken as a direct assault on the organizations that have the potential to complicate the progression of my education.

In recent years, I’ve had the rather odd pleasure of having been a student at two different universities. Both of them employ drastically different methods in teaching, specifically when it comes to the sizes of the classes they respectively have. The first one I attended had rooms that could fit no more than twenty to thirty students, whilst in my current campus it’s quite commonplace to see units filled with more than fifty students at once. Moreover, at the latter’s “seminar hall,” there are enough seats to accommodate hundreds of pupils at once. There is something important regarding this difference in size, and it’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Rather, I would argue that the expansiveness or compactness of a classroom has significant effects on the effectiveness of teaching.

Although I now more often find myself seated in larger classrooms, I bear a longing for the smaller ones I used to have, for a few but important reasons. The most obvious being that order is much easier to maintain when a teacher has less individuals to fuss over. I.e. they can immediately reorient the wavering attentions of those who are daydreaming, or are generally disrupting the flow of the lesson, vice-versa a student could more easily turn the focus of their lecturers should they have questions about the subject matter. And with a minuscule number of individuals, class discussions could actually be organized, instead of being opportunities to slack off and gossip that I see today (though I do have to admit that I enjoy any and all opportunities to relax and blather away on insignificant subjects). Secondly, compactness allows for lecturers to pay closer attention to detail, about their students, the goings on around them, and even the relationship formed between their pupils. Of course, these points might seem to be debatable, but I would explain further down the text why I still stand as a firm believer that less is more when it comes to class sizes.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the halls of my current university, is how differently my now lecturers view their students. A great number of these educators struggle to remember the names of pupils who they’ve spent the last year teaching, testing, and evaluating. Even if said student scored a remarkably high number during finals—perhaps the highest amongst that individual’s contemporaries—I found one case where the teacher basically could not recall the name or face of said person. This is made more jarring by the fact that when I witnessed this instance, the boy was discussing how proud and shocked he was that he achieved such a high grade to his mentor, only for the professor to ask for his name, student ID number, and what score he managed to attain. This incident does sound minor, yet its implication is disturbing to ponder.

A student and a teacher should have one common goal in mind: To have the student perform as best as he can, so that he may one day find greater successes after his graduation. A task such as this is clearly not an easy one. And it demands a great degree of commitment from both parties involved. To be able to reach their goal, they would have to be cooperating with one another, essentially working together in close tandem. How could an intimate, mutually beneficial relationship be realized if a lecturer cannot even recall the face of one of his brightest  apprentices? The high-ranking pupil I mentioned earlier might be able to escape the pitfalls of the professional world, yet what of those whose performances are plainly unsatisfactory? My old university had a solution for this problem, an answer that basically amounts to pouring ever greater amounts of care to problematic individuals.

In classes where the students only barely number in the twenties, a certain level of intimacy is to be expected. After all, how difficult could it be to remember a mere twenty individuals who we see nearly everyday and are compelled to communicate with in most situations? From what I saw, the degree of difficulty was practically nonexistent, as each member of the class and their teachers easily picked up on the specific traits, talents, and behaviors of one another after a relatively short period of one semester. Educators learned the strengths and weaknesses of their pupils quickly, and concocted methods suited to teaching individuals who needed special attention.

The result of teaching at a nearly individualistic level was profound. Students whose GPAs were only in the one’s and two’s on their first semester increased that number consistently—some slower than others, but nearly none of them suffered from slipping grades. I personally am especially grateful to my old “Performance Strategy” lecturer, who realized that I am a deeply anxious person who could barely speak during a presentation, but somehow found a way to induce a sense of ecstatic willingness to act, even sing, in front of rows of peoples. How he did it remains a mystery to me, though I could remember the times he spent talking to me outside of the classroom, to the extent that we almost daily chatted away the hours over a few pints of beers. This treatment was not exclusive to myself, as he commonly did so with my former peers, similarly encouraging those who suffered from stage fright to remain confident amidst prying eyes, and he succeeded, with all of them. Such an approach was applied to subjects that surround themselves with theories as well.

Another notable lecturer was the woman who formerly taught “Creative Writing” and “Communications Theories.” Her classes were mired with summaries, reviews, research proposals and reports, basically a plethora of writing and reading. Obviously, not everyone she taught had the same level of skill and talent when it comes to the matter of dabbling with the pen and paper. Many of old contemporaries found themselves struggling, at first, to keep up with her rigorous standards. I was once extremely surprised to find out that a paper that I had worked on day and night be marked with a D. Fortunately, she realized that my class of 2012 were not literary geniuses. Hence, she took a closer look at our works and gave incredibly useful instructions and advices, in various forms.

With every essay handed back to us, would be a lost of suggested corrections. She would underline the mistakes we’d made, propose more suitable alternatives, clarify where exactly we went wrong in the pages, and wrap up all her constructive criticisms in a short paragraph at the bottom of our papers. Every now and then, the best articles would be discussed with the rest of the class, with her clarifying why exactly said composition deserves to be praised, and how others could follow in its steps. These critiques and public analyses applied to all students, even to those who could consistently score A’s. In her eyes, there was always room for improvement, and she was committed to show to her pupils how to reach the level of perfection she envisioned. Furthermore, whenever we needed her advice, she would eagerly offer them, both inside and outside of class—through talks, text messages, and emails. Even though I am far from being a remarkable wielder of the pen, I can confidently say that my writings would be incomprehensible rambling had I not met her.

Now, with an admittedly heavy heart I must criticize many of the lecturers I am taught by in my present-day university. To be completely frank, very few of them give any sort of necessary attention to struggling students. When one of their pupils clearly need a lesson in public speaking, they would simply let the frightened, stammering young adult up the podium, to deliver a message that is incredibly difficult to understand due to their stammers or low voices. Perhaps they even tolerate this inability to perform what is a crucial component of being functional in everyday society, by letting the students read from their notes, cell phones, and anything else that would allow them to avoid actually needing to “speak.” When a presentation’s finished, the lecturers rarely offer useful pointers, most often brushing away what just happened by jotting down a mark on their notes. Callous, is how I would best describe their responses.

And when it comes to academic writing, plenty of differences can be found between my old and current campuses. In these days, my papers are handed back to me with a simple number symbolizing how well I’d performed, with no further notes to help me better the quality of my texts. At times, when students are fortunate enough to find a lecturer who could muster up the patience to scrupulously read the works of their students, there are perhaps a mere handful of footnotes. Far from the detailed, and very useful criticisms I had the pleasure of learning from in the past. Again, although this callousness sounds gentler in nature, it lacks the depth found in  my first university’s courses and educators.

At the root of the problem lies the difference in class sizes. My old university’s lecturers could afford to be excessively detailed in their teaching methods, as they had only a handful of students to handle at a time. Yet within my current system, teachers are forced to deal with numbers that could range in the hundreds at times, coercing them to be more apathetic to the performances of their pupils. In other words, because of the massive—in the numerical sense—undertakings they have to tackle, a compromise was made either consciously or otherwise, to prioritize efficiency, and not precision in their classrooms.

A crucial choice is put forward to anyone seeking to establish educational institutions. Whether they would concentrate on the individual success of each of their students, or pump out as many graduates as they can while hoping that at least most of them would be competent professionals one day. I cannot say for certain which of these approaches would work best for a student’s future. However, I do have some words regarding the effectiveness of both approaches when it comes to the issue at hand.

Hopefully, I have managed to showcase the merits of conducting small-sized classes. They allow for order, opportunities for asking questions, to the extent of a well-regulated,  class-wide discussion. A level of detail unaffordable to expansive classrooms could also be found, as teachers are given the opportunity to base their teaching methods on the individual needs of each student. For myself personally, these are reasons enough to encourage the construction of classes that permit lecturers to build a close, mutually beneficial with their students. Strictly for the sake of ensuring that all the graduates of a course, and of the university, be as competent or better as their fellow graduates—be they from the same institution or otherwise.


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