In defense of big classes and lecture-based learning

Sam Groves

At some point in their higher education experience, almost every college student finds themselves packed in a giant lecture hall with 300 of their peers, listening to a professor—who doesn’t know their name — recite bullet points from a PowerPoint presentation. At large public schools like UT, students typically encounter many such classes.

This is widely regarded as a bad state of affairs. Students are told to get the big classes out of the way in their first few semesters so they can move on to smaller, more discussion-based upper level classes. Many college guides, including US News and World Report, include information about each school’s student-faculty ratio (UT’s is 18:1) and the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students (it’s 35.1 percent here). Implicitly, lower ratios and smaller classes are considered preferable.

But there are virtues to bigger classes that often go unsung. For a certain type of student — perhaps an introvert who doesn’t like to participate in class discussions, or a visual learner who appreciates a good PowerPoint — bigger classes can actually be preferable to smaller ones.

The traditional preference for small classes over big ones is understandable. The more students a professor has to teach, the harder it is to answer each one’s individual questions. One UT faculty resource explains: “As the number of students in a class increases, so do the challenges in creating an effective learning environment.” Every student is different, so offering an educational experience that works for
hundreds of them can be difficult.

But this reality — that every student is different — can have negative manifestations in small classrooms as well. In small classrooms, discussion-based learning is typically favored over the lecture format. And class discussions, in turn, tend to favor a certain kind of student: one who is more extroverted, more sure of the value of their own thoughts and opinions, more eager to contribute and perhaps less eager to listen.

And more likely to be male. Research shows that female students are less likely to speak up than male students in class discussions, and “less likely to have their comments credited, developed, adopted, or even remembered by the group,” according to Columbia University. Instructors call on male students more than female students and are less likely to elaborate on points made by female students. And female students are, unsurprisingly, more likely to be interrupted.

In a very real sense, small classes are actually less egalitarian than big ones. So an institutional preference for small classes over big ones in academia puts some students at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, with a good instructor, big classes can be just as effective as small ones. It’s easier to take notes on a lecture than a discussion, which makes studying easier. Lectures don’t meander like class discussions do; they can’t be derailed by a single egomaniac who insists on blurting out every thought that pops into his or her head. And bigger classes typically demand the use of helpful visual aids, which smaller classes often neglect.

Neither format works for everyone, but the drive in higher education toward smaller classes and more discussion-based learning is a well-meaning but misguided effort. There are plenty of reasons to prefer big classes over small ones, so students shouldn’t be encouraged en masse to avoid them whenever possible.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas.