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Date: Sept. 1999
From: College Student Journal(Vol. 33, Issue 3)
Publisher: Project Innovation Austin LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,595 words

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This article tries to answer the question whether students at one of the twenty one South African Universities are experiencing problems with teaching that takes place in their large classes. The closed questionnaire was administered to 246 male and female students of the University of the North in South Africa in the second, third and fourth levels of study who are registered in the faculties of arts, education and management sciences. The questionnaire was analyzed quantitatively through the use of a chi-square. The main finding of the study is that teaching in large classes is not seen or perceived as a problem by students.


Increased student numbers in South African universities coupled with reduced resources have often resulted in larger class sizes, thus encouraging a reversion of the traditional style of delivery and a reduction in small group and tutorial contact - in short, less interactive teaching and learning.

Undoubtedly, this increasing diverse student enrollment has presented challenges on campus and in the classroom. However, many of these challenges should be at the core of institutional improvements that enhance student learning and involve faculty development. Since there is no single instructional method that can be wholly effective in a large multicultural classroom (Irvin & York, 1995), lecturers and their departments are often criticized for failing to promote the development of transferable skills in their students. Therefore, institutions interested in improving student learning outcomes should devote greater attention to helping lecturers and teaching assistants develop a repertoire of instructional methods that foster respect for cultural differences and address variant learning styles. Valuing students as learners will possibly create a more harmonious campus community, and an emphasis on diversity of large classes in institutional priorities may lead to improvement in the learning environment for students and lecturers. It is indicated by literature that large classes have a predominance of whole - class instruction, with very little instructional variability. In this instance, there is little emphasis on providing feedback with guidance to students or on stimulating concept formation. It is argued that, large classes (Putman, 1993) are affect-less, that is, they are neither negative nor positive. Greyling (1995) states her point by saying the situation is impersonal - perhaps even overpowering - when students fill thousands of seats in a large amphitheater that seemingly dwarfs the lecturer and this results in student failure. It is further stated by many researchers such as Coleman (1989) that large classes are perceived by lecturers as troublesome, difficult, and problematic which then indicates that lecturers face special problems in dealing with large classes. The main question then is: Are students having problems with the teaching that takes place in these large classes?



Subjects for the study were randomly selected from 246 students with mean age of 23.5 at the University of the North (South Africa) who are at second, third and fourth year level of study. These students were also identified to be studying in large classes by the scheduling and rooms allocation section of the university. The minimum number of students in the classes was 300. 95 of these students were males and 51 were females. Of these students, 87 were in the second level of study, 105 in the third level of study, and 54 in the fourth level of study. Faculties from which the subjects were drawn were 80 Arts, 81 Education, and 85 Management Sciences. Students participation was completely voluntary and were also assured of anonymity.


The investigation used a quantitative design to find whether students have a problem with teaching that takes place in large classes. In this instance, the questionnaire which consisted of 40 close-ended questions was divided into two sections of 20 items each. The distribution of the questionnaire was made possible by lecturers responsible for teaching such classes.

The sections were on teaching in large classes and the social environment of a large class. This article will report on the results of the first section.

Statistical analysis

Data was analyzed by use of a chi-square and an analysis of variance.


A chi-square was used to test the hypothesis that students of different gender, faculties and of study do not have problems with large class teaching.

Students' gender and large class teaching: A chi-square value of 1.362 was obtained which clearly shows that at df = I, it can occur by chance. Therefore, it is not significant at the chosen level of significance which is 0.05. Since p [is greater than] 0.05, it is concluded that male and female students have no problems with large class teaching.

Students, faculty and large class teaching: A chi-square of 2.464 was obtained and this shows that at df = 2, it can occur by chance. It is therefore, not significant at the chosen level of significance which is 0.05. Since p [is greater than] 0.05, the null hypothesis is rejected and it is concluded that students from different faculties do not have problems with large class teaching.

Students' level of study and large class teaching: A chi-square value of 3.892 was obtained which also indicates that at df = 2, it can occur by chance. Therefore, it is not significant at the chosen level of significance, which is 0.05. Since p [is greater than] 0.05, the null hypothesis is rejected and it is concluded that students at different levels of study do not have problems with large class teaching.


This study investigated whether students of different gender, from different faculties and levels of study perceive large class teaching as problematic. The results of this study offer strong evidence that size of class taught does not have an impact on teaching effectiveness and selection of teaching strategies by lecturers. Lecturers can be effective in their teaching despite the size of class they are exposed to (Melton, 1996). Large class teaching does not negatively affect students' learning. Students are largely satisfied with the way in which they are handled by the teaching staff. To them, it does not matter, for example, how the assignments are returned, but, the fact that they will ultimately return and be received makes them confident about their lecturers. Students do not worry about the teaching methods because they see themselves as capable of studying during their own time. The main thing they are interested in is being given areas of concentration that will be featured in an examination or tests. Their main concern is to be shown the important points in the text book for emphasis. While large classes might preclude the use of some strategies promoting active learning, they certainly do not prevent the use of all possibilities. Moreover, students' reactions to large classes depend more upon the quality of instruction than the actual class size (Frazee & Rudnitski, 1995). In most cases, students feel that where knowledge is the primary goal, the relevant information is contained in books and the lecturers' mind, and the amount added by them is likely to be inconsequential, thus class size should be unimportant for this goal.

The indication that students do not have problems with large class teaching might mean that the classes they attend have lecturers who are able to adjust instruction to meet their (students') individual needs and differences, and therefore, higher incidences of frustration and boredom among them are unlikely (Louisel & Descamps, 1992; Joyce & Weil, 1986).

Based on the findings of this study, it can be concluded that teaching and learning success may depend in part on what is being taught, but, what is the optimal size of class for a particular course and teaching task remains a problem for research. In order to help students learn, class size does not matter, since there is no universally accepted "right" size for any class. The optimum size of a class depends far more upon the philosophical basis accepted for the teaching - learning process than upon any direct practical consideration such as the course/subject taught (Rhodes, 1991; Ashman & Conway, 1993). These factors only become important if the emphasis remains upon class teaching using techniques of mass instruction.

Further, the majority of South African higher education institutions have the common stereotyped opinion that class size plays a determining role in teaching and learning effectiveness among students and lecturers. This type of opinion influences them to limit access to higher education without opting for more acceptable and improved teaching methods and approaches to make learning possible for each and every student at the institution of his or her choice.


Coleman, H. (1989) The study of large classes. Lancaster - Leeds language learning in large classes research project. Report No.2.

Frazee, B. & Rudnitski, R.A. (1995) Integrated teaching methods. Albany: Delmar.

Greyling, E.S.G. (1995) Dosente se belewing van onderrig in die groot lesinglokaal. Bulletin vir Dosente 27(1) 40-46.

Irvin, J.J. & York, D.E. (1995) Learning styles and culturally diverse students: A literature review (in Banks, J.A. & Banks, C.A,M. eds. 1995) Handbook of research on multicultural education. New York: MacMillan.

Joyce, B. & Weil, M. (1986) Models of teaching (3" ed). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Louisel, R.D. & Descamps, J. (1992) Developing a teaching style. New York: Harper Collins.

Melton, R. (1996) Learning outcomes in higher education: Some key issues. British Journal of Educational Studies 22(4) 409-425.

Putman, JW. (1993) Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion - celebrating diversity in the classroom. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

Rhodes, B.G. (1991) Heurostentics and subject didactic skills in the training of biology teachers. Johannesburg: Rand Afrikaans University (Unpublished D.Ed thesis)

WILLIAM DUNCAN PAPO, D.ED Department of Educational Practice University of the North

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A62839442