4. Four to nine students to one instructor, small group class
This is a common situation encountered in most small educational institutes or in advanced course classrooms. While small group classes often look like typical lecture-intensive classes of old, it can be the best setup to use active/collaborative learning methods.
At this size, it is still possible to give students some individualized attention. Also, since there are enough students, instructors can actually have easier time forging ahead in class content in order to keep up the pace needed to prepare for the upcoming tests. When there are three or fewer students in the class, it may actually be harder to ignore every little problem or setback a student may have. The greatest advantage of a class of this size is that it is much easier for instructors to make the students take turns in exploring and explaining the concepts at hand. Since there are enough people, chances are good that one of the other students will point out different angles to the topic at hand or ask a question on something related to the topic that other students didn’t pay sufficient attention to.
While the thought of plowing ahead even with some students not fully comprehending may sound like bad practice, in many situation, this may be needed in order to illustrate the big overall picture of the whole subject. It may be necessary to first show that Concept C came from Concept A, and Concept B, the one with which some students are having problems, is what connects A and C. Often, when the student finally sees the whole picture, he can understand the small bits and pieces much better. This is easier to do when, for any part of the subject, there always is a student or two who understands that particular part. No student may understand everything from the first run-through, but if there always is someone to fill in what another has missed, it becomes much easier and productive to engage students in active learning or collaborative learning sessions focused on the whole broad picture instead of minute details of the topic. When you have three or less students, there will be many cases where the class will encounter certain parts of the subject that everyone in the class will have trouble understanding, thus requiring instructors to try out various passive learning techniques to make enough of the class to understand it good enough to proceed to the next part. Despite larger class size, this setup may allow the whole class to cover more materials in less time compared to smaller classes.
While the diversity and number of students provide this setting with many benefits, the same diversity and number can work against this setup. It now becomes possible for a student or two to merely tag along, not participating in the class in meaningful ways. They may even try to hide from the instructor and sleep through the class. In this setup, while it is possible to make ALL students understand MOST of the material, and MOST of the students understand ALL the materials, it may be impossible to make ALL the students understand ALL the materials taught in the class. Despite the danger of possibly leaving a student or two behind, this student-teacher ratio often allows the greatest number of students to learn the greatest amount of material in the most efficient manner.
3-2. Two or three students to one instructor, time-sharing setting
This setting is found mostly in the tutoring/education service centers. Often you will see a “T,” ”+,” or “U” shape desk in rooms where this time-sharing sessions is being held. The sessions might even be advertised as an individualized tutoring session. If it were advertised as such, the student’s family needs to realize that it might be paying for one hour of private tutoring service when the student is only receiving twenty minutes of individualized attention. Usually though, the rates for these setting are cheaper than one-on-one private tutoring, and this setup can be the right setup for certain students in certain situations.
The typical time-sharing session may go like this: first, a student (let’s call him Student A) arrives and the tutor discusses with the student what he will study and what the student will need to do for the session; subsequently, he will receive a short lecture. About five minutes after Student A’s arrival, Student B will arrive. The tutor, seeing Student B, will tell Student A what he needs to do for the next ten minutes, and then attend to Student B, going over what he needs to study and giving short lectures. Five minutes after Student B’s arrival, Student C will arrive. The tutor will again give Student B what he needs to do for next fifteen minutes, and then attend to Student C. After Student C receives attention for five minutes, the tutor will now come back to Student A, going over what Student A has done for the ten minutes, and then giving necessary instructions for about ten minutes. Then the tutor will give Student A something to do for the next twenty minutes, then will go to Student B to check on his work and teach him anything needed. Student B will receive about ten minutes of attention then set to work on assigned problems for the next twenty minutes. By this time, Student C will have finished the twenty- minute assignment he received at the beginning, and the tutor will spend ten minutes with him on things needed. This ten-minute attention, twenty-minute self-study cycle goes on until the student’s hour is up. Before departing, the student will receive about 5 minutes of checking with the tutor, and may receive some homework. When a student departs, his spot will likely be filled by another student, unless it is near the end of the day for the tutor.
The most obvious benefit of this system is that three students can share the payment of a tutor’s service; thus rates will typically be lower compared to one-on-one private tutoring. Students likely won’t be able to hinder the progress of other students, and they can all be working on different subjects. They also receive much practice reading relevant content and doing related problems; thus these sessions can help build up the student’s study skills and confidence. It is also possible for the instructors to make use of the all the students to conduct mini-group sessions when the opportunity arises; thus they can flexibly use active/collaborative learning methods from time to time.
From the educational center’s view point, this can mean hiring fewer tutors to handle students and subjects. The center can also save space and time as different students and subject courses can be taught in the same place by the same tutor. Since the students are receiving some individualized attention, the center can advertise this as if it is a private tutoring service, and charge fees higher than typical mini-group classes.
The disadvantage of this system is due primarily to the time-sharing arrangement. The student may be paying more hours than he is actually using. There is a chance that the instructor may not have given the right amount of self-study work; thus the student might be idle for couple of minutes, or be stuck and not make progress while he waits for instructor to come back to him. One of the students might be very disruptive and thus be a nuisance to the other students. The tutor will have to juggle three topics at once; thus he will become fatigued fast. Certain topics will require lengthy explanation; thus the student might be forced to collect pieces from different lecture sessions. Since there isn’t much of a chance for interactions among the students, all the potential problems in one-on-one tutoring format will slowly arise. The students and tutors are being confined to small windows of space and time; thus there is a psychological toll as well. Finally, the tutor will end up giving some students more time compared to others due to the difference in topics they are covering. It is the writer’s opinion that this setup is best used when limits in resources force various students to be in same room at once. Despite all its disadvantages, this format allows highest amount of independent work on the part of the students; thus it is a very good way to help students develop good study habits. It can also be a cheaper way to receive help with homework or specific test preparation service compared to one-on-one tutoring.
3-1. Two or three students to one instructor, a mini-group setting
This is a situation that can be commonly found in graduate school lectures, low demand subjects, or in small educational institutes. Normally you will have two or three students paying attention to the instructor helping them with a subject of interest. Since there is small number of students, the instructor can enter into one-on-one situations with a student easily, when needed. The student will have a peer or two who can better understand his troubles or point out something of which he needs to know more. The presence of a peer will allow the use of many of active learning or collaborative learning methods. Since the number of students is small, it is easy for the instructor to customize the lectures and sessions to the needs of the students. Done right, this setting can offer you most of the benefits of one-on-one tutoring and allow you to do many other activities not possible in one-on-one tutoring situations. Under the right guidance from the instructor it is possible that students can take turns embellishing the class contents with their own unique experiences and perspectives.
No classroom situation is without its own unique set of potential problems, however. When you have only two or three students, it is easy for them to become too competitive with each other. If one student is too far ahead of others, it can discourage other students. A student having severe difficulty with the subject can easily drag down the whole class. In a class where both students are of similar level, they might be too similar to each other, making it hard to find or introduce a different angle to a problem. To derive the most benefit from this setting, the students must be similar enough in a way, but different enough to ensure diversity, as diversity is essential to many active/collaborative learning processes. If the match, and also differences, between the students are detrimental, it will take great effort from the instructor to make the mini-group study sessions be as productive as they can be, and sometimes, it may be necessary to conduct time-sharing groups instead. The writer will discuss the time-sharing group in the next section.
Another danger in a mini-group setting is the lack of students. If one student misses a session, the whole situation becomes one-on-one tutoring, which may halt on-going active/collaborative learning project. While the instructor and the student can find ways to capitalize on these situations, if this happens multiple times at random intervals, the disruptions to the class’s flow will waste time and resources of everyone involved. Even if no one misses any sessions, other problems of regarding the private tutoring format may arise in this setting as well, though the severity and frequency will be much less.
Most homes are not equipped with a room that can handle the mini-group and the instructor. Since there will be much conversations between students and the instructor, having the class at a coffee shop or in a library may not be feasible. It is better to set aside a dedicated classroom for these mini-groups. For many educational institutes, these mini-group offer financial and logistical challenges, as they will need to provide large number of instructors and classrooms. It is the writer’s opinion that the mini-group setting is best for small educational institutes, graduate schools, and specialized courses that need to delve into finer details compared to typical academic classes.
2. One-on-one tutoring
A one -student to one-instructor setting is something commonly found in private tutoring or when a professor is advising a graduate student. Since the particular need of the student is constantly being attended to, many mistakenly believe that this is the ideal setting for learning. It is true that this is the best way to address a student who is stuck on certain detail of a problem, or someone whose pace of learning is significantly different from an average student. Even in a large class, a one-on-one situation can briefly arise when the teacher is answering a question from a student in fine details. Many students or parents desire private tutoring when the student is unable to make meaningful progress on a homework problem or needs help understanding certain parts of the subject of interest. Most of education service businesses in the USA focus on supplying individual tutors to satisfy this demand. In effect, what these service providers are doing is being a matchmaker between their customers and their pool of instructors. While they do some quality controls, after making the matches, they become simple bill-collectors, as most of the work is done by the instructors with whom they have a contract. Usually, these businesses make use of customer’s homes as the place of instruction, which helps them avoid having classrooms and a library for needed books.
While these private tutoring sessions are likely to give an immediate boost to the student’s academic performance, there are some long-term disadvantages. The biggest problem is that the instructor and the student have to get along very well. Compared to any other situation, this case is the one where the type of relationship between the tutor and the student will exert the greatest amount of influence. If the two don’t get along well, the student will merely be wasting money and time. The problem is made more complex by the tutor and the student becoming too friendly with each other, leading them to a great waste of time as their attention waver from studying to making funny comments about something trivial. Even if the student and the tutor don’t become too chummy, they will eventually learn about each other too well. Instead of paying the needed due diligence to the content they are studying, they might oversimplify or skip too many things, thinking they understand them well enough. When the student tries to explain something to demonstrate his understanding, he might be taking too many short cuts and using too much jargon because both the tutor and the student are familiar with the subject and each other, thus hiding some major deficiency in their understanding.
It should also be noted that in a one-on-one situation, there is tendency for the focus to become too narrow. This can lead to the tutors not paying needed attention to parts of a subject in which the student isn’t interested. They may also develop routines and habits which might hinder generalization of knowledge and skills. If a student becomes too attached to a tutor, he may have trouble with a different tutor or other format for learning. Some research has shown that teenagers learn better in the presence of supportive peers with whom he can trade questions and comments. This lack of a peer’s input is a serious disadvantage of private tutoring situations, and you can’t use most of active learning or collaborative learning methods various researchers have found to be very effective. Finally, the potential consequence of a tutor abusing the relationship cannot be overlooked, which means guardians of the students will need to be vigilant about the tutors all the time. Private tutoring can be a powerful tool to enhance student learning. People need to remember that as with anything powerful, it should always be used very carefully. It is the writer’s opinion that private tutoring is best used for a student with very individualized needs when positive results are needed quickly.
When people talk about the education system, they often mention teacher-student ratio in the classroom as if it is a big source of the problem. They always push for a low student-high teacher situation, as if this is a panacea. The reality is much more complicated, as different student-teacher ratios will arise depending on the situation, since they all actually have their own advantages, uses, and disadvantages.
1. Two or more instructors to a student, pampering or inquisition?
This special situation happens more often than people realize when a student requires special attention. The benefit is that different instructors can perceive different needs of the student and thus offer a change that other instructors may not yet have considered. Often, there is an order of seniority among the instructors so that any conflict between instructors is swiftly resolved. The junior instructor may also be undergoing training from a senior instructor, and there is a good chance that the overall level of instruction will improve as time passes. While this special attention might appear as pampering a student, it can quickly degenerate into a sort of inquisition when the student or the junior instructor faces question from everyone else in the class. It is worth noting that this situation is similar to what some might face at a job interview or thesis dissertation. While having many instructors can improve the chance that a student can learn the topic at hand, it should be noted that at least half the instructors will not be teaching in any time. Most education system can’t afford to “waste” valuable time, money, and resources to provide multiple instructors to a student for a class. There also is danger of the student feeling overwhelmed or intimidated by the presence of many “superiors.” It is the writer’s opinion that this situation is reserved for students with very special needs or with plenty of money to burn.