Small classes

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Small college prof:
I have the unusual situation of teaching a very small class in a subject area that requires a lot of group work. Any advice on adjusting assignments for small class (under 10 students) when we have three hours once a week and the class is on a subject area that requires group work?

(I was supposed to have 13 students so I set up assignments for that number, but now I have been told I might have only 7 or 8 students!)

Cat:
People usually don't think so, but small classes (10 or less) are a challenge, especially if people won't participate in discussions, etc. I've taught small classes before in one-night-per-week, four-hour blocks. Luckily, you seem to have already utilized group work into your teaching, which is a good move, provided that the group work itself doesn't become too predictable.

I would look towards variety in teaching methods. Can you also have in-class mini-projects that use the computer lab or the library? Don't shy away from lectures, either. I use the lecture format for a short time, then move on to another teaching method. Keep the pace as fast as possible. It can be pretty easy to fall into a pattern of using group work that fast becomes stale.

It can be pretty easy to scale down large group projects to better fit smaller groups. One way is use the mini-project approach, changing things slightly to reflect pairs or groups of three. It is also critical to follow up any group work with a large-group reflection session. Too many teachers break people off into groups and sort of let them drift without any reflection on what was shared in these groups. When groups are not questioned or challenged by the instructor or others in the class, misconceptions and stereotypes are often reinforced.

Don't be afraid to treat the whole class as one larger group now and then. I would also shuffle pairs around so that people have a chance to work with someone new rather than only sticking with the same folks.

B.F.:
I am in a similar situation, so I am going to have only one group instead of the number of groups I usually have. What is the difficulty with your assignments?

Small college prof.:
The nature of the assignment requires four different groups. I find the best size for a major group project is three or four, not two.

Well, I am told that maybe there will be more students next week, as the first day of class was extremely cold and feel on the first day after the holiday ... . If I get 10 or 11 students, that will be better, but right now there are only seven.

B.F.:
I strongly suggest you do not have groups as small as two or three students. There will likely be students who drop or do not show up regularly to class. You will then need to deal with a student who is in a group where he or she is the only active student. I don't see how you can keep an assignment that needs four groups in a class that size. I suggest you change the assignment.

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