Are larger classes inherently worse than small classes—or do they work better for some subjects than others? And does class size matter when you’re tracking student engagement?

Two writers and educators who have featured in Top Hat webinars, Hamilton College sociology professor Daniel Chambliss, and Georgetown University humanities professor Jacques Berlinerblau, offer differing arguments: Berlinerblau contends that many large classes are impractical for teaching anything more than simple information, while Chambliss doesn’t believe class size is a factor in forging meaningful connections.

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Massification in higher education does not allow for effective teaching in the humanities, says Berlinerblau, because large classes make it too hard to make personal connections at scale.

Large class sizes are a symptom of greedy administrators who don’t prioritize teaching, Berlinerblau argues in his webinar. Another facet of the problem? The fact that the bulk of actual teaching is carried out by graduate students, who are being institutionalized away from connection-making:

In his book Campus Confidential, Berlinerblau adds: “Good teachers, undeniably, engross students. But that’s only part of the challenge. They must ascertain whether the engrossment is leading to actual learning.”

So do levels of engagement ultimately hinge on the teacher’s attitude and experience, or does class size matter more?

In 2014, Hamilton College educator Daniel Chambliss co-wrote, with Christopher Takacs, How College Works, a discourse on how to improve higher education with the power of personal relationships at its core.

Chambliss contends that limited resources and massification need not diminish the undergraduate experience. For most students, college works best when it provides the daily motivation to learn, not just access to information.

“It’s very important that the first classes that students have are good, right out of the gate,” said Chambliss in the Top Hat Talks webinar, How to Dramatically Improve the College Experience. If the first classes are taught well, they will remain engaged—students will generalize based on the quality of their initial classes.

One way that engagement can start is by learning students’ names.

“There’s an emotional attachment as soon as you hear your own name. It individualizes the person. It lets them know you know that they’re separate, that they’re there, and that they matter to their teacher,” writes Chambliss in How College Works.

Granted, learning 200 names in time for class to start is an impossible expectation for any educator. But Chambliss says there are strategies to making large classes work. Forging relationships through tactics like learning students’ names is a starting point, says Chambliss, but success will depend on how each student engages, participates and ultimately connects.

Related story
Engaging students in the first five minutes of class

Jacques Berlinerblau covers professor training, class engagement, and how to save the future of higher education in our recent webinar.

Watch Fixing America’s Higher Ed Problem on demand ❯ ❯ ❯

For Dan Chambliss, higher education is about connection and a sense of place. Learn why even the layout of your admin building is important to student engagement.

Watch How to Dramatically Improve the College Experience ❯ ❯ ❯