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Tools for Teaching: Managing a Large Class Size

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

In a recent conversation with a public high school teacher, she explained that this year, her social studies classes increased in size to nearly 40 students. Resignedly, she added, "Well, there goes group work."

Do you have more students this year? Education budget cuts across the country are one cause of class-size increase in public schools. If you've found yourself with larger class sizes, or you're a new teacher still grasping the often overwhelming experience of one of you and many of them, here's some helpful tips:

Tip #1: Don't Give up on Collaborative Grouping

Students need opportunities to check in with each other around their learning, ask questions, guide each other and reflect together. And this is even more crucial with a large class. If a tight classroom space won't allow for quick triads or quad grouping, use "elbow partners" -- two students in close proximity. Do this often. As we know, with large class sizes, quiet students tend to get even less airtime. With less one-on-one time with small groups and individual students, teachers need to keep that large number of kids talking and being listened to. You can do a "turn and talk" even for just 27 seconds. Much can be discovered, wondered about, and solidified in that half a minute.

Tip #2: Accept that Things Take Longer

Accept that presenting and discussing a unit's learning objectives may have taken 20 minutes with that smaller class in the past, and probably takes twice as long with this larger group. Also, you might be lamenting over the days when you could whip around the room and spend a few quality moments with each student or group, or when you could offer immediate and thorough support. Unfortunately, if you did that now with 35 or more in the room, you'd find yourself out of time before coming close to accomplishing the daily learning objective.

One remedy, especially when it comes to checking for understanding? Strategies like thumbs up/thumbs down, or having students hold 1 to 3 fingers on their chest to let you know how well they understand (3 means "I've got it!) Other quick formative assessments, such as sentence starters, can help beat that Time Thief in the room. You can also use exit slips to see if they "got it," asking one strategic question about the day's learning.

Tip #3: Find New Ways to Know Students

Unfortunately, the larger the class size, the more the relationships with students suffer. Consider creating surveys once or twice a week where students can answer questions on a likert scale and also ask questions of you. Invite students to write a letter to you about their learning, their accomplishments, challenges, and interests.

You can also rotate your focus every few days to 5 or 6 different students. That way, no one will slip through the cracks. Often with large class sizes, the squeaky wheels, so to speak, are the one's that receive much of the teacher's time. Make sure you check in regularly with your "proficient" students, and continue to create differentiated assignments for those gifted kids in the room.

Tip #4: Be Okay with Loud and Letting Go

Start repeating this mantra immediately, "Just because it's loud doesn't mean they aren't learning, just because it's loud . . ." Somewhere along road, we began to attribute silence to deep thought and high-level learning. It's more often just a sign of kids being compliant. So go ahead, take those 37 kids and put them in groups! Give them a challenging task and some supplies. Let it be loud! Roam from group to group and if your door suddenly swings open to visitors from the district, let them get an eye full of engaged, enthusiastic learners!

As for the letting go, if you are still passing out papers, collecting supplies, stamping homework all on your own, stop. Assign students "jobs" immediately. By giving up these managerial tasks, you will have more time free to check in with a child who has been absent a lot, add a step to an assignment for that advanced student, crack a joke with the quiet one who avoids others, or pose a strategic inquiry question to the whole class.

How do you manage a large number of students? What are your tips for other teachers? Please share in the comments section below.

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Reynoil Brown's picture
Reynoil Brown
Fourth grade teacher

I currently have 30 student and eight of them are special needs children. It is challenging on a daily basics to complete some tasks. So, after reading this blog I am started using tip 2 and it working. Looking at implementing tips 1 and 4 in the classroom.

Anjanette Wallace's picture
Anjanette Wallace
Sixth Grade Teacher

Thank you for this article. I have 38 sixth graders this year and we're busting at the seams. I really like what you said about the noise mantra. I will use it starting tomorrow. My biggest issue is grading papers for that many students. Any suggestions?

WellzNYCPE's picture
Physical education teacher at Walton Educational Campus. Bronx, New York

Teaching in an urban setting can present teachers with issues that can challenge his or her teaching effectiveness. I am a high school physical education teacher from the Bronx, New York. Although I can be considered a different situation because I am a physical education teacher (not in the class room) I can attest to the difficulties that an overcrowded class can bring about.
The biggest issue that I have encountered as an urban high school physical education teacher is engaging each student in learning on a daily basis. As a dance teacher, I have sixty-one students in a relatively small dance studio. With that many students in my class, it becomes almost impossible to truly assess the three domains of physical education (cognitive, psychomotor, and affective) in my classroom. My assessments have become more and more ineffective as class has progressed.
I have also experienced growing frustration with classroom management. Since I am the only teacher in a class of sixty-one students, monitoring individual student behavior has become nearly impossible. My goal of being an effective teacher is being challenged by the complications created by an overcrowded classroom.
However, after reading this article I can honestly say that I have gathered some concepts that might help my situation in the dance studio. I think that formative basement driven by student feedback is a great idea which I plan to implement into my dance class in the near future. I also love the idea of using students as monitors to help me better manage my class.

Anya Manes's picture
Anya Manes
chemistry and biology teacher, San Francisco CA

I too have increasingly large class sizes. I use a warm up Question of the Day to keep students engaged while I check for homework completion and record attendance.

I have them work in groups of 3 or 4 quite often for worksheets, activities, and lab work. I can hold them individually accountable by orally quizzing each group after the activity or the lab. They get the questions on a worksheet, work together for some time answering the questions, then quiz each other to see if each member of the group can explain and answer each analysis question. When the group is ready, they signal me, I gather the worksheets, and ask the questions verbatim to the student of my choosing. They earn a group grade, so all are accountable, and I have less grading to take home. I also have a much better idea of how much the class understands and I can rephrase or ask follow up questions as necessary. The instant feedback and the clear accountability has definitely helped. The oral quizzing slows the class down a bit, but it makes sure that they are all with me.

Lastly, I ask each of my students to write me a one page letter about how the class is going for them. This provides all kinds of insight into how the seating chart is working out and who is having trouble with what. It is hard to give them all individual attention, and the letters really help me get to know them and attend to their needs.

Marcia Hirst's picture
Marcia Hirst
high school teacher central Illinois

In beginning art classes we often have 30 or more students, many of whom really aren't interested in art...just need "an easy class"! I find that having highly structured beginnings and ending rituals and responsibilities helps students buy-in to the physical environment, tools and materials. During demonstrations I expect complete silence and focus but when it is studio time my method of management is student contact. I make a point of moving around the room constantly, helping hesitant students, supporting and encouraging achieving students and keeping tabs on everything going on. I allow some socializing and freedom to move around for materials but the environment stays focused on "making". Creating a relationship with students by making a comment to them every day establishes a connection. With that connection I gain a personalized relationship with my students; they, in turn, want to be part of the "group" and wait for my approval. I never sit at my desk and I am actively engaged with my students at all times during the period. They know I am "on it" and want to participate. Showing students that you are aware of them as individuals (besides their grades) builds a partnership that manages itself.

Monica Burns's picture
Monica Burns
Educator, Consultant, ADE , ClassTechTips.com

One thing I have found useful for my increasing class size is the ClassDojo iPad app (it works from a PC/MAC too). It is a funny easy way to keep track of positive and negative actions. Check out my post on ClassDojo on my blog: www.ClassTechTips.com

Susan Weikel Morrison's picture
Susan Weikel Morrison
Science Education Program Developer, Sci-Q Systems

Keep a really good seating chart - in pencil. At the beginning of the year, put each child's reading and math levels next to their name. This will help you tailor your discussion questions to them.

It is very important that you call on all students equally and skip no one, so that kids know they can't hide behind playing dumb. Wait for answers. Coach answers. But do what you have to do to get success.

Leave space around the edge of the room and down the center so you can easily move around while you're teaching.

Put the weakest students nearest to you and/or partnered with a strong student. Make the strong student explicitly responsible for assisting the weaker student's learning. It will help the stronger student review material and develop better empathy and social skills.

Have students check each others' homework and assign a letter grade to it based on the percent correct. Tell them which percentages go with which letter. Have baskets on your desk labeled A,B,C and D,F. Have monitors collect the papers. Every kid should turn in a paper, even if it's blank. Have monitors be responsible that every kid turns in a paper and that every paper has a name on it. Monitors place the papers in the appropriate basket based on grade.

As soon as possible, when you are not directly teaching and the kids are engaged in an activity, call up the kids with papers in the D-F basket, one by one, and find out what their problem was. Assign a solution - a demerit for laziness, peer tutoring or small group re-instruction for lack of understanding, extra time if there was a family emergency, finishing the homework after school or at recess, a call to a parent, etc. Be frank with the kids: the only grades that count for report cards are tests and projects. Homework grades are just to check for understanding.

As for essays, have students write regularly according to specific criteria. When the essays are collected, scan them to be sure students generally met the criteria, but don't grade them. Return essays that haven't met criteria. Put the completed essays in a folder. After you've collected a certain number (for you to decide), return all essays. Have each student select which of his/her essays is the best one. Have them polish and re-write their essays, partnered with another student who will read and critique their work as they improve it. The polished essays are returned to you for grading. You also might photocopy them and create a class magazine. Those publications were always quite popular with my students and parents.

Do science labs in quads. Do not assign roles. Rather, have each child be a number from 1 to 4. When a task needs to be done, say the number of the doer. For example, No. Ones get the rock samples from the science table. No. Twos lay all your rocks out on your desks. No. Threes, find an igneous rock and tell the group how an igneous rock is made. And so on. Keep the lesson going really fast to keep the kids on their toes.

Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

One idea may be to also have a "quiet" collaboration project, and have the students write collaboratively. Over the summer, I discovered a fun creative writing site for elementary students called Cubert's Writing Cube. This website streamlines the process of writing and is very user-friendly, colorful, and fun. It is Wiki based, and a great platform for collaborative story writing. There are interactive story-starters which make it impossible to suffer from writer's block, and there is a "gallery" where the students can draw illustrations or upload them. Here are some of the other benefits the site :

* Getting feedback from you and peers within the cube makes it easier to edit and revise and they resist it less.
* Students can access it at home to do their homework or add more detail to their illustrations.
* When they publish their writing, students can choose how to share it, with friends and parents.
* There is a lesson shelf for teacher, a great resource to get ideas on how to get started!
* The entire writing process (and papers) are accessible from a single place.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Scary thoughts about increasing class sizes - surely, you'd think, we'd be heading towards smaller class sizes. Anyway, these are great tips - and some excellent ideas in the comments, too. One tip that I've often found useful is devoting time each cycle for a little 1:1 session with each student, so that you can get a clearer picture of what's happening for that individual. A little individual time can be so valuable.

BieberQOU_durin's picture

Huge numbers of classes are naturally and inevitably scary to teachers because there is an immense possibility of failing to organize and successfully manage the class. But the teacher who is really a teacher in the calling finds way for his treasured commitment.

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