A.J. Jacobs is a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University
Following a group discussion on the challenges related to teaching Introduction to Sociology, I was asked to compare the community college experience with the large university experience, from both the instructor and student perspectives.
My background in teaching
My first opportunity to teach college Sociology was in the summer of 1996 when I was a Ph.D. Student at Michigan State University. In the 26 years since, I have taught Sociology courses at a community college, a comprehensive university, and Research 1 university. During this time, I have taught at almost every level. I’ve been an adjunct instructor, visiting assistant professor, assistant, associate and full-tenured professor of Sociology. I have taught Introduction to Sociology face-to-face and online, with my courses ranging in size from 15 to 250 students. The bulk of this has been at East Carolina University (ECU), where I have taught more than 30 sections over the past 17 years as a tenure-track/tenured Professor of Sociology. The majority of these have been face-to-face sections with 90-120 students. By comparison, my community college and summer courses have 15-20 students, and my online sections have generally had 80 to 120. This upcoming spring, I will be teaching an online section of 250 students.
The instructor experience at a large university
Teaching a large section at a university (90-120 students) usually takes place in a lecture hall. In such a setting, teaching becomes more theater and art form than pure instruction/knowledge transfer. It requires the instructor to keep the attention of three types of students: seriously engaged students in the front row; fellow travelers in the back of the room; and a large group in the middle that can become engaged or be lost. Over the years, with the wide dissemination of smartphones and laptops, reaching the middle group has become more and more challenging. As a result, the need for the instructor to entertain has risen over time.
Next, very large sections inhibit the quality and number of interactions with individual students. Active students sometimes have to understand that other students also have a right to have their questions answered or comments heard. This includes limiting the types of assignments offered (i.e., mostly close-ended multiple choice and true-false questions, as opposed to essay tests).
Finally, very large sections increase the time an instructor spends responding to emails, providing extra tutoring/instruction in office hours, and addressing student issues (ex. missing/makeup tests).
The instructor experience at a community college
By comparison, face-to-face teaching in a small course section (40 students or less) is an entirely different experience. The instructor can easily learn the names and faces of students. They’ll know who is attending, who is engaged, who is doing well and having problems, and so on. The instructor also can give more individual attention to students in the classroom, on graded assignments, and outside of the classroom (in office hours and via email). This is a much more rewarding teaching experience and better ensures the material is being understood and digested. Conversely, it sometimes can be challenging to solicit class discussion in small classes.
From my experiences teaching at large universities and a community college, I have found that community colleges have a more diverse range of students, particularly in terms of age and life experiences. The added mix of non-traditional students and self-funded students frequently makes class discussions more interesting and thought-provoking.
How the student experience differs between community colleges and universities
I believe that it would be beneficial for all students to have the opportunity to take Introduction to Sociology—or any introductory level course for that matter—at a community college. If not, all university students should have the opportunity to take intro courses in a small, face-to-face class section of 15-25 students.
A small class size is a much better atmosphere for a student to get the most out of an introductory course. It enables the student to have more frequent and better-quality interactions with the instructor. The smaller setting enables the instructor to offer students a wider variety of assignments, both closed and open-ended, as well as more constructive feedback on these assignments. In addition, the smaller number of students enables the instructor to learn the students’ names and faces, making students feel more like an important member of the class, rather than just a number. Finally, because the more intimate experience is less intimidating for students, it allows them to feel more comfortable asking questions and making comments in class. This is beneficial for everyone, as students can often learn a lot from their peers.
From my various experiences, I now firmly believe that being in a small class size (20-25 students) provides students with the best setting in which to become engaged, learn the material, feel valued, and develop their imagination. Again, the most ideal would be to take such a course with a diverse range of students (age, socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds). I believe that a community college setting is the best place to accomplish this. It’s also likely to be the most economically feasible environment in which to do so, both for the institution and the student.
Wondering how you can make your course more inclusive regardless of your class size and format? Check out our eBook, “How Fellow Instructors Create an Inclusive Classroom Experience.”