Metacognition and the Problem of Class Size

scott's thoughts Apr 27, 2022

During the didactic year of a PA education, students read a great deal of material, and sit through lectures regarding the same, absorbing information as they move along. In our Student Success Coaching Model, we strongly emphasize teaching metacognition skills, relying on strong interaction between the student and instructor/advisors. Initially this may sound utterly impractical, particularly to a faculty member tasked with imparting a subject to a classroom of one hundred students who have paid well for the privilege. How could there possibly be time to address each individual student’s needs?

Of course, we have more than enough experience with PA level education to know that this is an issue of primary importance. The Student Success Coaching Model is a streamlining process; its employment results in better outcomes for everyone involved, students and faculty alike. The model asks not that faculty work harder, but work smarter, and that students do the same. Prior to outlining how, let us first address the problems inherent in teaching, and learning, in large classes.

Face-to-face learning environments come in three sizes: the small class or seminar, with less than 25 students; a mid-sized class, of 25 to 80 students; and finally, a large class consisting of more than eighty students. You probably sat through a “large” classes yourself during your higher education days.

Such a class consisted of you and perhaps a hundred other students in a lecture hall, listening to a far-off and inaccessible educator lecturing on the material from the beginning to the end of the class. There was seldom time for questions. With an audience of that size, few people were willing to ask questions anyway. You memorized the material in the lectures and in the accompanying textbooks and passed three or four exams – probably multiple choice, because those are quicker and easier to grade. How much interaction did you ever have with this educator? Perhaps after the first test, you were clever enough to figure out how the educator tested and knew how to memorize the right material. But years later, how much do you actually remember from that class?

Students of large classes are generally dissatisfied with the quality of their learning experience. They feel the lack of interaction with their educator, both in and outside of the classroom. Lectures lack structure, with poor, or no, discussion opportunities. Often they find the classroom environment and facilities unsuited and uncomfortable. Finally, it’s difficult to know how well one is doing when there is a lack of testing or graded assignments.

We do not present this dour view of large class sizes to blame the educator. Teaching a large class effectively comes with serious challenges, starting with the logistical ones. An educator does not have time in a week to meet with eighty or more students, to grade 80 or more assignments per week from multiple classes, to answer each individual question, or to confirm that every single student understands the material.

In Massey Martin LLC’s free webinar on Student Success & Remediation, we present a number of dynamic methods on fully engaging even large classrooms in their own learning process. Metacognitive techniques, directing material toward different learning styles, are possible regardless of the classroom size, and does not require that your hardworking faculty manage countless extra hours of work. The most we ask for is a change in thinking, from both students and faculty, in how the didactic classroom works. 

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