Do Large Classes Make It Harder to Learn?

Class size does not have to put students at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering enriching experiential learning opportunities.

Professor in mask calling on students with raised hands

FOR A LONG time now, business educators have faced increasing pressure to tackle the ultimate conundrum: How can we train future leaders to meet the complex needs of modern employers? Especially as our classes grow larger and more diverse?

And that was before a global pandemic ended life as we knew it! For decades, management education has been criticized for being overly theoretical and for failing to produce graduates with the managerial skills employers need. In the COVID era, business schools face even greater scrutiny, as potential students are weighing whether a traditional MBA program offers greater value than a portfolio of certificate courses available on platforms such as Coursera and edX. More students are demanding programs that equip them with demonstrable skills, not just knowledge and grades.

Remote learning presents an additional challenge. We recently taught a class where 35 students were masked and socially distanced in the room with us, 25 students were masked and socially distanced as they attended via Zoom from the next room, and 25 students were logged in remotely from locations ranging from Japan to Brazil. The need to master the technology required for remote learning only adds to faculty’s stress and exhaustion.

The last thing faculty need to worry about is whether some students in large, diverse, and geographically distributed classes are being underserved. With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to discover whether class size matters when it comes to delivering successful experiential learning. And if it doesn’t, what are other crucial factors that ensure that experiential leadership development is effective?

CLASS SIZE IS NOT A BARRIER

More educators are realizing that students learn management practice most effectively not by learning theory, but by participating in challenging real-world experiences. The general consensus is that delivering such experiential learning requires a low faculty-to-student ratio, so that faculty members can facilitate both the experience and the subsequent reflection. Educators have long believed that experiential learning is less effective and more difficult to deliver in large, culturally diverse classes—particularly those where students learn in virtual settings. But is this true?

To test the assumption, we examined the outcomes of an eight-month skills-focused leadership development course. Delivered as part of a one-year MBA curriculum during the 2015–16 academic year, the course was taught simultaneously across Hult International Business School’s four campuses in the United Kingdom (London), the United States (Boston and San Francisco), and Asia (Dubai). Each setting involved vastly different class sizes, from as small as 25 students to as large as 130, and included students with a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds.

The course’s objective was to develop students as leaders through sustained behavioral change. All students were required to complete self-assessments to determine their strengths and weaknesses as leaders and to identify opportunities for improvement. They then designed and executed personal action plans, practiced new skills in a series of experiential learning exercises, and engaged periodically in self- and peer-to-peer evaluations. The program included more than 50 hours of classroom and on-campus activities, more than 30 hours of business simulations, and approximately 20 hours of peer-to-peer coaching in small groups.

Students on each campus began the year at different levels of average capability and followed different trajectories over the eight-month period. However, while differences were evident at the start of the year, they became less pronounced after three months. After eight months, very few differences were evident at all. We found that leadership competency scores increased incrementally for students across all class sizes over the eight-month period. Moreover, students in every class ended the program at around the same level.

Our findings show that large class size does not need to be a barrier to effective experiential leadership development, even across classes of different sizes with different starting points. Faculty simply need to adopt the right strategies and dedicate sufficient time to the process from beginning to end.

PRACTICAL STRATEGIES

So, how can faculty make sure they effectively design and deliver impactful experimental learning opportunities, particularly in large class settings? Here are seven best practices to consider:

Recruit skilled, dedicated faculty. All faculty who taught in Hult’s course were recruited for their experience in teaching teamwork and leadership skills. To ensure continuity, before the course began the school trained these faculty in teaching skills such as adopting “growth mindsets” and structuring effective peer feedback.

Recognize that building capabilities takes time. Students will discover that knowing what they need to do is easier than being able to do it. Students and professors need to expect that development will be gradual, so they are not disappointed if progress is slow or reaches a plateau.

Aim for improvement, not perfection. Students should not set goals that are too formidable (for example, “I will learn to deliver speeches like Barack Obama”). Such goals are unattainable and, therefore, meaningless and unhelpful. But when learners focus on small, incremental, ongoing steps—that is, when they apply a growth mindset—they will stay motivated and develop significantly over time.

Measure progress carefully. Students can’t improve if they don’t repeatedly measure their progress. In our program, students regularly provided peer ratings and feedback based on defined criteria for leadership competencies.

WHEN LEARNERS FOCUS ON SMALL, INCREMENTAL, ONGOING STEPS, THEY WILL STAY MOTIVATED AND DEVELOP SIGNIFICANTLY OVER TIME.

Embrace self-reflection. Arguably the most effective way for our students to develop as leaders is to participate in challenging experiences. Only through experience can they observe how they behave, identify meaningful opportunities for improvement, or reflect on what they might do differently in similar situations. Without such conscious recognition and effort to change, students can find it difficult to overcome established patterns of behavior. 

Embrace peer-to-peer coaching. At the start of Hult’s eight-month course, students were grouped into “triads”—peer coaching teams of three students each. Within their triads, students helped each other overcome roadblocks and received mentorship and motivation as they pursued their own personal development plans. Such a small group format can be replicated online easily, regardless of class size, and can lessen the need for professors to lead every discussion and engage with every student.

Create a sense of safety. Participation, discussion, and reflection are critical to experiential learning, yet some students are uncomfortable speaking in front of a class. However, we found that students were more confident giving confidential feedback within their triads, especially after first receiving training on models of giving and receiving feedback in a safe and positive manner.

INSPIRATION IN A POST-COVID WORLD

Before the pandemic, traditional leadership development programs—whether in business schools or corporate training programs—tended to prioritize small numbers of participants and a high faculty-to-participant ratio. Many have assumed that small class sizes make it easier to put participants through experiential workshops. But our study indicates students can learn effectively in large and diverse classes, as long as the right elements for skill development are incorporated.

Guided by common criteria for leadership competencies, the students in Hult’s leadership development course were able to develop valuable insights and plan their next steps in personal development through discussions within their triads. The triad model enabled professors to communicate with each team as a unit, effectively dividing the necessary faculty-to-participant ratio by three.

THE TRIAD MODEL ENABLED PROFESSORS TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH TEAM AS A UNIT, EFFECTIVELY DIVIDING THE NECESSARY FACULTY-TO-PARTICIPANT RATIO BY THREE.

A similar approach also works for online or hybrid courses, where schools can team online students together and face-to-face students together. What’s important is that all students have the same frameworks for self-assessment, reflection, and coaching.

The question remains, is there a class size at which the professor-to-team approach is unworkable? Undoubtedly there is, especially when faculty also are juggling the challenges of teaching some students online and some face-to-face—and when their face-to-face students now are effectively disguised as bank robbers! But we found our method to be effective even with a class as large as 130 students.

Future research might investigate the extent to which this model could be scaled and applied to MOOCs and other formats that involve hundreds or even thousands of students. For example, how can regional coaching assistants extend a faculty member’s reach by providing coaching support for a segment of the teams? Given the challenging class logistics we face in a COVID and post-COVID world, we should be encouraged that small class sizes are not always necessary for students to thrive.

Because of the pandemic, we are entering new territory as we design experiential exercises that do not require students to be in the same physical space. But our situation precisely mimics the uncertainty and reality of the world of work right now. We can take that as our inspiration as we design enriching virtual and face-to-face experience-based courses—whether we’re teaching 25 students, 130 students, or many more.


Amanda Nimon-Peters is a professor and research fellow at the Hult International Business School campus in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Nadine Page is a professor at Hult’s Ashridge Executive Education campus in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.