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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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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!

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