The Perils of Small Classes Revisited

Returning to a subject that I wrote about in 2015: when low enrollment makes collaborative assignments difficult. Last semester I taught an undergraduate course built around a team-based research project. Three teams, each focused on a different country. The course had only eleven students, resulting in two teams of four and one team of three. Not ideal, but minimally sufficient, or so I thought at the beginning of the semester.

I hadn’t planned on three students performing at the D/F level and making little to no contribution to their teams’ research projects. Compounding the problem: one-quarter to one-half of the class being absent on any given day.

The roster for one of my fall semester courses currently shows only nine students. If it does run, I might have to abandon the collaborative project I was thinking of including. Given what happened in the spring, I can’t form teams of only three students. Two teams somewhat defeats the purpose of the project.

The easy option is to simply replace team projects entirely with individual assignments, even though that’s not how the world works. Students might in fact prefer this, given the death of curiosity.

My situation is complicated by several environmental factors over which I have very little control. First, interest in the humanities and social sciences is declining nationally, exacerbated by the fact that the undergraduate enrollment at my university is quite small. The small number of students interested in learning about the subjects that I teach has steadily gotten smaller.

Second, the structure of the curriculum privileges some areas of the world and bodies of knowledge over others. The majors that are most popular with students demand 60 to 80 credits, while general education requirements present the history of human civilization as a straight line from Athens to Rome to St. Thomas Aquinas. The organization of the curriculum sends students the message that college is about checking off a list of boxes. The courses that I teach aren’t on that list.

Third, the delivery of the curriculum makes my courses less attractive to students, even if they are interested in the content. Each academic department must schedule some courses every semester at 8:00 a.m. Since I’m an early riser, I’m happy to take this time slot, but most undergraduates are not. More consequential: the false perception among students that they’ve learned more when what they’ve done to learn feels easy, a point recently made by my favorite cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham. Students resist active learning pedagogical methods because they feel harder than passive instruction, despite being far more effective. When given a choice between a course that I teach using active learning and a course taught by someone else that consists of lectures and multiple-choice exams, most students will choose the latter.

So that’s my situation. I have no easy solutions to the problem.