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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.


Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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.

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.

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