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I recently asked a question on the use of clickers and one comment I got was:

I have a very low-tech clicker technology I use in all my classes. When a student doesn't understand something I say, they raise their hand and ask a question.

But in my experience, this is not always true. In large classes I suspect many questions remain unasked and many people lose track of the subject due to a fear of "looking stupid" in front of a large crowd. In math classes I've taken, I've noticed that small classes (10-20 students) are more similar to a dialogue between students and teacher and large classes (100-200 students) are usually more of a monologue(or a dialogue between teacher and a very small subset of the class).

We even thought the problem was so large that we made a web app to improve the teachers insight on how much students understood.

Is this phenomena known by other students or is this a cultural thing of Sweden where I come from? And if it's a known phenomena, what is the critical class size?

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What kind of bounds are you looking for? I attended lectures where all of the 200+ students were active and participating (yes, it does happen), and I've seen classes where none of very few were. Surely there are some dependencies, but even with averages the results would vary so much (by the lecturer/topic/age, etc.) that I doubt you will find any real data for such a broad question. On the other hand, there is some research about guild sizes in massive multiplayer online games, perhaps that would help? –  dtldarek Apr 26 at 23:30
    
There are teaching methods, such as Mazur's peer instruction technique, that are specifically designed to create active student participation in large classes. IMO the issue isn't whether class size is critical, the issue is what is the critical class size for each technique. –  Ben Crowell May 29 at 21:09

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In my experience, everyone participates in a class of 10. By the time you get to 20, there's maybe a couple of students in the back who aren't really engaged, and class of 30 has a noticeable contingent of disengaged students. I haven't taught any classes in the 40 - 70 range, but a class of 80 really feels like a large lecture, with only a few students in the front able to participate.

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Honestly, I have not seen a major difference in class participation in courses with as few as 10 students than in courses with as many as 100. To be clear, I'm referring to the tendency of students to ask questions when confused---certainly in larger courses there are more students not paying attention, but I don't think being in a smaller class would necessarily change their behavior much. I think it's fair to say that the percentage of students asking questions in my courses has not depended much on class size, I think the reason being that I try to make all of my students feel very comfortable in class, in order to eliminate the fear of "looking stupid".

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Small classes are higher courses, which people take by choice, not forced by a sequence of required ones. The difference in maturity and drive makes a large difference in the attitude towards the course and thus their active participation. Having taught both large and small, upper and lower level, part of the speciality and complementary classes, I have seen this difference personally many times. Unless you find some study that separates out such effects, I'd be very wary of any conclusion.

And there is the at first sight surprising fact that the "personality" of a class or a whole generation of students is defined mostly by a few driving personalities. Win them over to be active and ask in class, the class is active; if they aren't interested or hostile, you won't go anywhere.

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