A couple of weeks ago Inside Higher Ed briefly higlighted a BioScience paper, Do Small Classes in Higher Education Reduce Performance Gaps in STEM? The answer seems to be “perhaps for women”. It’s an interesting result but despite my interest in the topic what it really got me thinking about was how this is one more in a long string of “are small classes better” articles that talk about the question only from the perspective of whether students acquire particular knowledge or skills better.
Obviously, this is important. But small class sizes permit a classroom experience where the outcomes for a student are more than just the learning outcomes.
When I think about the interactions with students that a small class enables, beyond the pedagogies I can use, there are many other benefits to the student, both short-term and long term. All of them tie back to actually getting to know them all as individuals.
I can learn their interests and find ways to wrap in course content that reflect those interests or point out interesting connections in passing. I can be aware of those interests as I encounter opportunities on campus and in the community and connect students with those opportunities – even if they aren’t related to my course content at all. I can become another adviser about educational experiences they might want to have – other courses in my department or courses colleagues in other departments teach. I can connect them up with alumni who share their interests. This is the “building connections and relationships” that I think really comes into its own at colleges that are built around the small classroom experience.
It less resembles the admissions sales pitch one hears about the benefits of small classes, but from my experience it’s equally valuable that I can get to know my students well enough that I can spot when something is going wrong. Not just academically, but personally. Or, on the flip side, I have a chance of having built enough of a trusting relationship with my students that when something goes wrong – not necessarily in my class – they feel they can tell me. We know that life’s challenges can easily derail students and students don’t always know that there are options open to them to help keep them on track or at least put things on pause in a recoverable manner. In a small-class setting, it’s easier for me to be an individual and to establish a consistent pattern of interaction with my students as individuals.
I’m always happy to see research that confirms that the specific learning of the course goes better in small class settings. But for me the biggest value, and I would suggest also part of the reason the learning goes better, is that we’re doing the work of the class in a room full of individuals who are able to connect with each other.