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Tools for Teaching: Managing a Large Class Size

Do you have more students than ever this year? With serious education budget cuts in most states, we are seeing class size reduction programs as a thing of the past in many schools. Teachers semi-new to this profession may be experiencing class sizes above 30 for the first time. In a recent conversation with such a teacher, as we discussed her new situation, she resignedly said, “Well, there goes group work.”

This conversation, and several conversations with others, got me thinking about this sudden change for many teachers. If you’ve found yourself with a large class size this year, here are a few things to keep in mind…

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!

Tip #2: Accept that Things Take Longer

Know that a learning objective that maybe took 20 minutes with that smaller class in the past, might take twice as long with this larger group. You might also 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 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 is, “I’ve got it!) Other quicky 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 you a letter about their learning, their accomplishments, challenges, and interests.

You can also rotate your focus every few days to 5-6 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 saying 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, moody teen who avoids others, or pose a strategic inquiry question to the whole class.

How do you manage a larger number of students? What tips would you like to offer fellow teachers?

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kristen's picture

I am currently dealing with large class sizes including Honors classes of 32 students. I have found it difficult to manage the class with that many students. I am still using collaborative groups however I haven't focused on the other 3 tips yet. After reading this blog, I am going to implement tips 2 through 4 in my classes.

WendiH.'s picture
6th-Grade Math Teacher from Oregon

Large class sizes have been a continuous event for our District at the 6th-grade level over the past four years. With the latest budget cuts our class sizes haven't increased much (still at 30-33), but we have more students pushing-in who used to be pulled out for support.

I enjoy having these kids in the class and am a firm believer in the use of small groups for language usage and content discussion, but this year's biggest challenge is managing the "newcomers." This is my first year having to serve a Level I English Language Learner who is only capable of counting by one's and is struggling to understand the basics of the language I'm using for directions much less for instruction.

However, to use language, you must hear language. The plan is to have all the kids practice verbalizing mathematical concepts more intentionally and thereby help all of my struggling learners to engage in language acquisition in real time. Large class sizes are certainly challenging, but they also bring with them more opportunities for student success and growth through peer interactions and small group activities.

DaniW's picture
9th grade English teacher

I am currently dealing with a couple large and rather rowdy classes of students. This is nothing new to me personally, but I have two very large classes in particular that have difficulty focusing in both structured and unstructured learning environments. I actually incorporated the "thumbs ups/thumbs down approach in a recent activity and it went well. I am definitely going to use the "1 of 3 finger approach" next. What an effective strategy to measure student comprehension and engagement. I also plan on "letting go" more and delegating things to my students. Thanks for the tips!

Kim Brathwaite's picture

I am a Barbadian teacher of a large class of 29 students. I usually have a roll of about 32 students but the number has dwindled this year. I do have challenges with the large number since the class is made up of different levels of learners, including four who are working behind their grade level. I find this post interesting as it shows me that I am not alone despite the different cultures. I do delegate tasks to students such as peer tutoring, sharing out books etc. and correcting homework. I also use collaborative groups of two as suggested and I meet with individuals who are behind in work at recess or after school and this practice have helped me to make progress in meeting the students' needs. Group work calls for some noise and so I cant totally let go. I do welcome any tip to improve my practice!

TWilliams's picture
7th grade Social Studies teacher from Atlanta, Ga

I have been teaching for the past eleven years and the class size has been increased to 34. This has been a very challenging year with so many students with so many different learning styles. In the mix of the 34, are 10-11 exceptional education students who are Ebd, Sld, or Add, or etc. These tips will be very helpful especially #2. I will use the ideas of thumbs up or thumbs down or even holding up fingers for understanding.

DonB's picture
8th Gr. Social Studies, Seattle, WA

Thanks for the clear thoughts about large, often unwieldy classes (32 this year in a couple of my 8th grade social studies sections). I particularly like the thoughts regarding, #2: Accept that things take longer.

It's just a fact of life, sometimes. With the bigger classes, I find that it one or two or three or four kids (for whatever reason) just plain missed the instructions (perhaps because of #3: Too loud too often).

After spending too much time fighting that battle, I have incorporated what amounts to your tip #1 Collaborative Grouping (actually elbow partners) into my procedures... "Now turn to your elbow partners and make sure that you're perfectly clear on exactly what to do." It takes up some time, but I consider it an investment that pays off.

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