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Tools for Teaching: Managing a Large Class Size

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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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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!

abigail_pollak's picture
Marketing Assistant

Teachers in large classes may also want to delegate some of the work to more able students. These can play the role of teachers' assistants.

Corah's picture

I have 28 fourth graders this year, next year I expect 31ish and the year following 34ish. My students have jobs that get changed out every week. Homework Technicians are two students who check off and sort the homework so I can see who is missing theirs that day. Teacher's Assistants pass out papers for me and put things in the mailboxes. I also have table captains to get books and supplies for their table, everything needs to be stored elsewhere since I have tables instead of desks. Librarian, custodian, etc.. we have to remember as teachers we can't do it all!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

When I moved my students' class discussions to an online space, they were so much more engaged and participated much more deeply. Not only did this address the issue of a crowded classroom and noisy group discussions, but it leveled the playing field as far as shy, self-conscious students go, as well as issues around cliques and intimidation by louder, more talkative kids.

Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

The rules governing the schoolroom should, so far as possible, represent the voice of the school. Every principle involved in them should be so placed before the student that he may be convinced of its justice. Thus he will feel a responsibility to see that the rules which he himself has helped to frame are obeyed.
Rules should be few and well considered; and when once made, they should be enforced. Whatever it is found impossible to change, the mind learns to recognize and adapt itself to; but the possibility of indulgence induces desire, hope, and uncertainty, and the results are restlessness, irritably, and insubordination.

WGibbons's picture
J/S high LA and computer teacher Alberta, Canada

Get some students out of your room. Okay don't fall off your chair. I teach 8-9 Language Arts. In large classes I often take my best and brightest as few as 6 as many at 10 and give them a 3-4 week challenge assignment that they work on as a group or maybe in 2 groups in the library, another classroom or someplace outside my classroom. I have given them the novel Animal Farm and the colour movie to create a compare and contrast presentation of the two texts. One year the same assignment was taken to a new level when a parent had a B&W version, much older and all 3 text were compared. WOW! That was a presentation. I had a group of 10 divided in 2 and they had to figure out how a Read Your Own Adventure Novel was written and created. Then each group of 5 had to write their own novel. I asked for about 150 pages. The stories were amazing. Another time I set a group to create poetry books for which they wrote examples of poems, illustrated them and wrote analysis of each and there have been other projects, all very successful. What does this accomplish? First these bright students are challenged by themselves and by each other. This is probably the first time that the bright students have all been in a group together. This is shocking for them but they love it. No one falls behind and everyone does their work. The results have always been superb far exceeding my expectation or any minor criteria I may have set. These kids are happy and they work harder than they have ever worked before. Really changes the way smart kids view each other. They become allies rather than competitors. Secondly, this changes the dynamic of the classroom. Fewer students to start with and they may all receive help every class. New students begin to answer questions. They find other students to rely on and help each other more. I have much more time to help my students who really need teacher help. Everyone benefits. My weak writes become stronger as I have less marking and can help them more. I have more time to listen to students read and help them. A nice by product of this was amazing results on our provincial tests at the end of the year. My weaker students do much better than expected and better than they did in other classes. My top students did very well, but remember they were already top and were going to do well anyway. I was just boring them by having them stay in the classroom. This method is a win-win for everyone. With a little planning you can make this work in the classroom too if you have no place else for your students to go.

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