Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Large classes may be hurting the learning process

“You’re not asking all the questions you want to ask, more of your friends are in there and you can get distracted pretty easily,” senior Imoh Udoh said. “If you’re someone who isn’t driven, stay away from the larger classes.”

What one may consider a “large class” is relative to a few variables: the subject, the grade level and how many pupils the student and teacher are accustomed to. At Northwood, of the three classes listed on the school report cards (Biology, Math I and English II), the average size of the classes was above both the district and state averages.

Kathy Greenlee reigns in her English III class of 37 as she begins explaining the week’s vocabulary terms. Skyler Waugh/The Omniscient
Kathy Greenlee reigns in her English III class of 37 as she begins explaining the week’s vocabulary terms. Skyler Waugh/The Omniscient

“I’m used to classes in the mid to upper 20s,” Udoh said. “But to me I would say about 20 kids [is the ideal class size], that way, you have enough to collaborate, but at the same time, you don’t have so many you’ll get distracted by all the other people.”

Udoh was part of an AP Calculus class with 34 students first semester of this year and explained how it affected learning for his peers and himself.

“I saw a lot of kids get distracted, but it’s not really their fault; whenever all their friends are in there, it’s going to happen. The teacher just can’t pay them as much attention; there’s just so many kids to tend to,” Udoh said. “But at the same time, that’s not an excuse because you can come before school, after school, whenever you have time to get extra help, so really it’s on you. You’re the only one who can stop yourself from learning.”

Some teachers feel college preparatory (CP) class- es are harder to manage in the classroom at larger numbers opposed to Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

“Right now I have two classes of 33 freshman, and they’re CP and Inclusion, which means there are kids in there that have special needs along with some higher level kids too though,” English teacher Justice Mansour said. “The problem with 33 students is I feel like it’s hard for me to get around the room and meet everybody’s needs.”

Mansour feels that large class sizes may affect English more than other subjects based on the type of work students are required to complete.

“It’s an English class, and with writing, I’d like to give specific feedback to each student, but when I think about having 33 essays to grade, I can’t give as much feedback as I’d like to, and I think because of that, teachers don’t give as many assignments as they’d like to either,” Mansour said.

Besides assigned writing and worksheets, an- other important component of English class is open discussion.

“The larger classes affect discussions too; we can’t have discussions where everyone gets to participate and share their perspective, so I have to call on certain people, and that gets some students involved, but not the amount I’d want to,” Mansour said.

Discussion and questioning, though central to English, are also essential to classrooms in most other subjects as well.

“Student participation, a lot of times, can depend on being able to build a relationship with that student and creating a more comfortable and safe environment, whereas in a class of 34, it’s hard to create that environment where students are willing to ask the questions they really need to and get involved in discussion,” Chemistry teacher Aaron Freeman said.

Jill Bone, also an English teacher, expressed concern over the limits on discussion and assignments that large classes can impose.

“I’m a firm believer in practice being the best method to improve, and in these larger classes students don’t get as much practice,” Bone said. “I think that students don’t get the individualized attention obviously, but they also don’t get the number and caliber of assignments because it’s simply not feasible to grade them all.”

Certain science classes such as chemistry, which sometimes requires the use of fire, chemicals, and other potentially dangerous activities, can create safety concerns for teachers in larger classes.

“As a chemistry teacher, I’m looking at flame test labs which use open flames, and you have such a large class with not a lot of space to move around, so it can generate a safety issue,” Freeman said.

High school classes in the past had caps, which varied but did limit the number of students any single class could have. These caps on class sizes “went with the crash of the economy five or six years ago,” according to principal Justin Bartholomew.

“Now there is no cap in high school, you’ll get some districts with extraordinarily high numbers that have up to 45 in a class,” Bartholomew said. “What we [the administration] recognize and what we know is that there are some types of classes where you can get away with that and others where you can’t.”

An issue the administration faces when choosing which courses to offer is finding a way to allow variety but still maintain reasonable and consistently sized individual classes. Electives like Yearbook (12 students), Journalism (13 students), AP Spanish (four to six students) and Nursing fundamentals (two to six students) are all small classes that take up a block of time that the teachers could be assigned an extra class in their core subjects. This causes debate over how that block of class time is best used.

“For next year what are we going to value? We could put a quota at 20 and say that if a class doesn’t get at least 20 students it doesn’t make the final course offerings,” Bartholomew said. “In doing that, the danger is you cut out the variety of courses students can take, but the upside is that classes will be smaller, but still not drastically smaller, so you have to ask which is worth it?”

This is not an issue that is going away any time in the near future. With the new additions of Chatham Park, Northwood can expect to con- tinue to see record-breaking freshman classes. The last three years’ freshman classes have been the biggest in school history with another record-breaking class expected in fall 2016.

“We know we are going to get more students next year than we had this year, which will mean more teachers as well,” Bartholomew said. “But we are running up against the building’s current physical limits if no changes are made.”

One idea that has been brought up is the consideration of building a fourth high school in Chatham County which would effectively solve class size and overcrowding issues at Northwood. However, Bartholomew feels this is not very likely to happen.

“If you build another school you’ll have about four schools with around 600-700 kids in each school,” Bartholomew said. “As soon as you do that, if you plan to massively fund four schools, you’ll have to find the money in taxes on businesses or something, and that’s just a thing that 99 percent of local governments are not willing to do or people are willing to put up with.”

If funding were available, Bartholomew said a new school, despite its price tag, might be worth it.

“Personally, I think that would make an educational mecca, but it’s extraordinarily expensive and not a realistic approach to take at the moment,” Bartholomew said.

The issue of large classes is a concern of the local school board and the Northwood administration and alternative solutions are being considered.

“There are already discussions in place about increasing the capacity of the building, and I’m sure we’ll hear soon from Chatham County with plans to do something with the building itself,” Bartholomew said. “I think the realistic, at least short term approach to the issue is that, when you look at Northwood and you look at the class sizes, you just have to be smart about where you’re allocating your personnel.”

– By John Dunning