Class size matters but teaching skill and course design matter more, study finds
The jury’s still out on the impact of large classes on student learning. But if size matters, a new report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) – which includes research done at Queen’s University – finds that skill and competency of the instructor, teaching methods and course design probably matter more, placing growing importance on institutional support for teaching.
Queen’s professor Anne Godlewska conducted research for the study and knows about the challenges and opportunities that are unique to teaching large classes, and current strategies to address them.
“It is possible to take a large class of several hundred people and give it the feel of a smaller class, tailoring new technologies and well-tried teaching methods to these increasingly challenging environments,” says Dr. Godlewska, but that this option requires a willingness to experiment with teaching and ongoing investment and support from administrators at multiple levels.
Overall, greater institutional support for teaching is critical, says the report, written by Angelika Kerr, former research analyst at HEQCO and now senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
“Without incentives for change, clear definitions of faculty roles and institutional support, the risks involved for faculty may outweigh the benefits,” says Ms Kerr.
Particularly for large classes, institutional support for teaching influences both the challenges and opportunities. In the HEQCO report, many of the institutions (and in several cases their faculty unions) are described as valuing research over innovation in teaching. A willingness to explore innovation in large classes is more likely to occur at institutions where there are teaching stream faculty, investments in institutional teaching and learning centers or teams, and where teaching excellence is included in the promotion and tenure process.
While there are few studies assessing the impact of class size on learning in postsecondary education, teaching approaches and class size are “almost inextricably intertwined,” says the report. Among large-class strategies: a move away from the traditional lecture to blended learning that includes web-based modules, interactive demonstrations and other electronic tools, which require students to be familiar with the content before attending the lecture.
Many instructors note that large classes require more time initially for class preparation, and that they have to be much more organized and structured in teaching such classes. In almost all cases, instructors identify a need for additional funding and human resources.