Does Size Matter? The Perils of Small Classes

JawsSome of my courses this semester have such small enrollments that team-based projects and classroom activities have become problematic.

Balloting in presentation competitions is one minor example that I have apparently fixed. I regularly hold classroom competitions in which teams of students present on a topic and then select the winning team by voting with Monopoly money (see here, here, and here for more details). When voting, students come to the front of the room and place their money on placards with team numbers written on them — the only rule being that students cannot vote for their own team.

In the first two competitions in one course I noticed little variation in the sums of money received by different teams, even though some presentations were clearly superior to others. I asked the class about this unlikely result. I found out that in such a small class where everyone has interacted in some fashion with everyone else, students did not want to risk publicly embarrassing badly-performing peers or be judged as cruel, so they distributed their money evenly across teams regardless of presentation quality. My solution? Create a ballot on Google Forms through which students can anonymously select the best-performing team. After the last presentation of the day, I email students the link and they submit their responses. Students’ votes now better reflect the quality of the presentations. I also find that it’s easier to tally results with a spreadsheet on Google than to count paper money.

I don’t know a similarly-easy solution to other size-related problems. I recently used an ICONS simulation for the first time (more on that experience in a future post) in a class with only eleven students. Six nation-states comprised the simulation’s actors, so five states were represented by two students and one state by just a single student. If the latter student had been absent on either of the days I ran the simulation, or if two students from the same team had been absent, the exercise would have been wrecked.

In the same course, I had organized a significant portion of classroom time around a sequence of eight topics. For each topic, a student team was supposed to give a mini-lecture and then lead the rest of the class through an activity for some active learning-based peer-to-peer instruction. Then in the subsequent class, students take a quiz on the topic to reinforce the previously-presented material. With only eleven students, I could form only four teams, which left me with the task of delivering the content for half of the topics in the syllabus — defeating the main purpose of the exercise for fifty percent of the time.

Given that my students have priorities in life that often conflict with attending class, I now believe that teams should contain at least four or five students. With only two or three students, there is too high a probability that most or all members of the team will be absent on any particular day. This in fact happened yesterday: only a single member of two different teams attended class.

But if I increase the size of teams in a class with ten to twelve students, that means only two or three teams. Such a small number of teams is too few to expose students to multiple perspectives on a particular topic by means of competitive presentations. It is also too few to adequately incorporate peer instruction across an entire semester, unless the teams that exist are responsible for teaching multiple topics, and this increases the risk that students will be exposed several times to a terribly-performing team.

Why not return individually-completed projects and presentations? I prefer to avoid this option, because it gives students the message that collaboration is unimportant. As I’ve said before, group work matters. For example, individual writing assignments mean that I am the only person who ever reads what students write, which diminishes the authenticity of assignments and leads to lower quality work. And while it may be possible to squeeze as many as six individually-delivered presentations into a 50- or 75-minute time block, a class with six or fewer students doesn’t meet the minimum enrollment requirement at my university. It probably doesn’t at yours either.

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