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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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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
TWilliams
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
DonB
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.

Alyse Chester's picture

This was so helpful! I, too, am dealing with a large class size. I do often try to remind myself about the noise level- as long as they are learning, I'm good. However, I loved the second tip about things taking longer. The grade I teach has lots of standards and we run out of time quickly- as in any other classroom. I do need to stop and remind myself often that things are just going to take a bit longer. Great, helpful advice!

Brandi Tims's picture
Brandi Tims
2nd Grade Teacher

I currently have 25 second graders in my room without an assistant. Our district has undergone budget cuts, which eliiminated several assistants. We are using Pearson's Reading Street series and this program is taught mostly whole group. However, I allow 30 minutes a day for collaborative groups (learning centers). I also use the idea of "elbow partners" except I call it "Knee-to-Knee." Two students seated next to each other, turn and place their knees to each other and discuss a topic. They have 5 minutes to tell their partner what they know about the topic, what they want to know, and what they have learned (KWL chart). The students' love this. Tip 4 states be okay with loud and let go. I manage this by distributing jobs to every student in my room, so that no one feels left out. Jobs range from sharpening pencils, taking up pencils, passing pencils out, taking up papers, line leader, errand runner, date changer, etc. The students' know exactly what they are expected to do and they do it. At the beginning of the day and end of the day, one would think there was chaos in my room. In actuality, students are doing their jobs.

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
WellzNYCPE
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.

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