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Tools for Teaching: Managing a Large Class Size

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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.

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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.

Mrs. Parks's picture
Mrs. Parks
High school English teacher

Most of my classes are in the low 30s, even up to 40 students. My challenge is simply that in my larger classes, I can't monitor behavior as effectively as I can in smaller classes.

During work time, I'm okay with the conversational volume that comes with collaboration, but I get so frustrated with students wasting work time. It seems that the more I assist students who need help, the more other students take advantage of my diverted attention. I struggle to police cell phone usage, keep track of how long students are in the bathroom, etc. while trying to actually teach.

We established community expectations as a class at the beginning of the semester, but I struggle knowing what behaviors to enforce. When I pick my battles, students see that as condoning inappropriate behavior and off-task behavior escalates, but I can't address every infraction either, or I spend all my time in a disciplinary mode rather than instructing. Any suggestions?

Audra Winters's picture
Audra Winters
Retired, but active educator!

I find it a very daunting task to keep students using indoor voices while working in small groups. Although there is collaboration going on, a lot of time is spent socializing. It's a situation that needs redefining with a group of 25 students. Students also think that it's o.k.if the work is complete, to chatter.

Jennifer Jones CCSD's picture

My classroom, fire coded for fifty three, ballooned up into the 70s. I had to place kids outdoors and in the hallway. I don't care how good you are. You can't teach around this. Try to look at this from the students' perspective. How could you not feel undervalued? Often we teachers complain that our students do not value their education, but the apple does not fall far from the societal tree. How can we demand for our students to value their education when they are treated like this? Preaching to the choir... I know, I know.... But thank you for allowing me the forum to express this. It is very hard day in, day out.

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

I am grateful for the tips and sympathize with difficulities of teaching large classes, even up over 50 students sometimes for me. These tips i will keep in mind.

reflecting on this article makes see so much clearer just how much better a class, esp a large class, can be taught and managed with 2 teachers. with one teacher the classroom management itself is a big struggle not to mention getting individual or small group attention to a sizeable portion of the students,...and all the while still tap into the class mood and give necessary motivational boost or bring them to inspirationi... but with 2 teachers....ah....both teachers can breathe easier, classroom management virtually takes care of itself and presentation of content is smoother, faster and more impressive as 2 teachers can tap into the mindset of modern day kids....and well in those kinds of conditions a teacher is ripe to get inspired and thus inspire the kids!

sometimes i like to teach solo, but when i teach a few in a row solo, esp. with the big classes, i again see how effective, powerful and relaxing 2 teachers in one classroom is and look forward to the next chance to partner with a colleague and "dance" in the classroom.

wishing you Peace, Harmony and Prosperity

Megan Colon's picture

I just completed my first year of teaching. My mentor and the other veteran teacher on my grade level kept saying that my class size will decrease. By the time it was the end of the year, I had 25 students. Majority of my class was not reading on grade level. It was a challenge to teach and keep 25 third graders focused. After reading the tips, I really liked tip 1 and tip 2. I can't give up on grouping because I can have my higher level students work with the lower level students. As long as my students are working together in the give, let it be loud.

Mrs G's picture

I teach science and social studies to large classes of 4th graders. One technique I use to keep the volume under control is a tiered system of acceptable noise levels. Zero is silence, one is whispering, two is one-on-one conversation, three is for presentations, four is for outdoors. For example, when the students do their group science activities, they are told to keep their voices at a level 2. With practice, the students learn and conform to the expectations.

I need to try the "letting go" aspect of Tip #4. One of my biggest challenges is getting all of the many science materials ready for that many students. After reading that tip, I am considering letting students help prepare some of the materials. Some students arrive to school early, and that would be a good opportunity for them to help out.

Another big challenge is checking papers for the large number of students. It takes forever for the pile to go down. Any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks for the great tips!

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