Summary: This is a post on the importance of classroom sizes and understanding your preference of classrooms. If you are in college or considering going to one, this might help you make a few wise decisions.
The class is packed with people. There’s never been so many people in the class. Everyone’s really there because it was the last class of our year at school. Emotions running high and everyone’s paying attention like this time would never come back. I dropped out after 20 mins.
Getting back to school after a three years of work was going to be hard. What made it harder was that I was going to study liberal arts. Because, well, I had not cracked a single B school. I told everyone I was more of a creative guy and liked liberal arts better. I googled for what liberal arts meant approximately 84 times before I sent my acceptance. I still hadn’t figured out what it meant. But I liked the subject they taught. And believed the school would help me discover my passion and all that.
Subjects such as India’s history, Shakespeare, Business essentials, Sociology, Mathematical reasoning and Philosophy were lined up. I was fascinated. It was like showing colored balloons to a little baby. 18 of them to be precise. I wanted all the balloons at once, but I was told I would receive two every term. I started crying and agreed anyway.
It’s been a year since I graduated. I wondered what made school special. To my surprise it wasn’t the subjects at all. In fact, the classes bored me. I walked out of most of them when the teacher was too busy to notice. My personal best was 4 minutes. As people cried and gave away standing ovations, I was in my room watching ted talks or reading the newspaper. I wondered how what I signed up for was not what made the difference at all.
I saw a pattern. I enjoyed three courses: the writing course, the leadership course, and philosophy (out-freaking-lier). And why did I enjoy these courses? Because they constituted small classroom sizes. I preferred smaller classrooms (the writing class had 25 people), enjoyed working in groups of not more than 6 people (the leadership courses), preferred shorter duration of classes (the few lectures that I most enjoyed),and finally of course I enjoyed philosophy because lets just say I am a deeply deeply philosophical person.
Now why this pattern? There must be a reason. Well, there is! The writing course was a discussion all through. Never a monologue and never a dull moment. Every class was filled with a interpretations , ideas and feedback. In short, it gave you a chance to speak, learn and improve. When we spoke, the ideas flowed from there never getting lost in a crowd; when one spoke, everyone listened with rapt attention and you felt heard; and even after one stopped speaking, it felt like your were still speaking for your idea was a part of the entire discussion. As the classroom size got bigger (by 4 times and sometimes by 8) for the other courses, my participation in class was abysmally low and naturally my interest too. Why did this happen? When the class size increased, so did the number of discussions and ideas. Now, how could that even be a problem, does it not imply more learning? Well, with the crowd, come the factions and with the factions comes a lower ability to listen to the other. Ideas began to get lost and so do people who are not a part of the discussion. Now, there was nothing wrong about this. People had some wonderful thought-proving insights, but before our thoughts got any provoked, we had moved on. More often than not, a number of subjects resulted in something similar for me.
The reason I liked the leadership courses was because these courses comprised of small groups; ideas differed (drastically at times) but amidst the conflicts and ideas came room for improvement, listening skills and new ideas. I am by no means generalizing a big class does not foster all of this, but it did not for me and it might not for you. What is to be taken out of this is that understanding – the understanding that the you may not be cut-out for large-classroom education and you may thrive only in particular cases – smaller classrooms in my case. I was a minority because a lot of my peers found the classes inspiring which I must agree they were. But for me, the inspiration lasted for a very little time. This brings me to the next part of this post – Attention Span.
Paying attention in classrooms has always been a challenge for us; it has been an ordeal for me. There have been rare instances when I have managed to overcome this ordeal; It was not when the Prof was amazing or the subject was interesting; The times I have paid rapt attention are the times when the duration of class has been an hour or less. Research has it that the human attention span is a mere 8 seconds. Well, that’s too short a duration for a class. What happens in an one hour class is that there are multiple 8 second spurts and these gradually decreases with time. When the class extends beyond an hour, there seem to be little little or few bursts of attention left and even the little attention is directed towards the clock.
Smaller classrooms or shorter classes have worked for me the most and I believe it will for a lot of us. Schools are beyond classrooms and it is the overall experience that makes a difference at the end. It was this “experience” that made my time at the school “magical”.
What you should take out of this post is understand what will work for you. We generally apply to schools for the Profs ,the subjects taught and the overall experience. If the latter matters to you most, you will make the best of any school you go to, but, if the former two matter the most, it is very important to understand how the classes operate, their duration and how they are structured.
Most learning happens outside the classroom, but the times when they happen inside are times that make a learning truly memorable. I vividly remember my one hour lectures and the small-classroom discussions. What will you remember after you leave school? or rather, what environment will aid you to remember what you learnt?
Written in Sept 2015.