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Overcoming the challenges of an oversized classroom

By Simon Hennessy on 26 November 2019InnovationLeadershipNSWstaffroom

Among the findings in the OECD’S Education At A Glance Report from 2019, some information surely makes for uncomfortable reading. The discovery - that the national average of students per classroom stands at 14 percent higher than the international average - suggests a problem of overcrowding in Australian schools.

Of course, statistics must be taken with a pinch of salt. In real terms, this difference means an average of 24 per class versus the international average of 21 - hardly a number to incite hysteria at the state of Australian schools. Nevertheless, it raises an issue that nearly every teacher will have to face at some stage: how best to navigate oversized classrooms.

The larger the group, the harder it is to make a genuine impact, elicit engagement, and maintain control. As such, adapting the playbook in some of the following ways can make all the difference when faced with a class that is bursting at the seams.

Get creative to foster relationships

It goes without saying that the relationship between teacher and student is crucial. As outlined by Richard Gonzalez of the Empowered Learning Transformation Centre:

“The student/teacher relationship is a cornerstone in a student’s social maturation process. Cultivating a positive rapport with a non-parental authority figure allows students to define themselves, adapt to their environment and grow their emotional and social intelligence.”

The barriers to establishing a one on one connection erected by an oversized classroom are numerically obvious - one teacher divided by many students means less time for each. Getting creative with how that time is used becomes imperative for the teacher seeking to establish that connection.

In a piece for Edutopia, Rebecca Alber’s creative suggestion is a policy of rotation. While the wider class group tackles assignments, small rotated groups of 5 to 6 students engage in discourse with the teacher on whatever topic is under the microscope for that day.

Rotating the focus allows for class time to be spent on meaningful engagement with students, rather than being diluted through attempting constant group communication with an impenetrable mass. Alternative creative measures could include student surveys to offer insight into their thought process and outlook on your teaching practices, or even the implementation of a rule ensuring every student offers at least one instance of verbal feedback per lesson.

Getting around the obstacles to student-teacher relationship building requires a pivot towards practices that may at first seem unfamiliar, but should the desired end result of a fortified personal connection be achieved, employing creative practices is well worth the effort.

Keeping every student afloat

Keeping up with the pace of the class is a difficult task for many students. In an oversized classroom, this difficulty is compounded by the decreased ability of a teacher to tailor class speed to those struggling with the content, and the presence of many peers is as strong a deterrent stopping a student from drawing attention to their troubles as any.

Ironically, a solution to this very much classroom-based problem may lie outside of it. Consultation hours are a valuable resource to a teacher under any circumstances, but they take on an extra significance when bloated class size is factored in.

Research by Pauline Carolyne Fortes and Abdellatif Tchantchane into the challenges of large Maths classes concludes that one on one consultation is the ideal workaround for weak students being left behind. They can be brought up to speed with direct attention and without the perceived embarrassment of having more advanced peers witnessing their struggle.

The daunting aspect of such a solution for the teacher is the sheer volume of consultation hours they might have to face; even the most committed of educators can only spend so long providing supplementary attention. In such a scenario, an alternative solution lies in the practice of flexible grouping, as outlined by influential artist and educator Otis Kriegel:

Don't be afraid to move kids from group to group depending upon their ability for a specific assignment. If students are not engaged—if the work is either too challenging or boring—then classroom management will become an issue. Flexible grouping keeps students working on tasks that are just right for them, and it keeps you in touch with their individual needs.”

It may seem counter-intuitive to keep students on the same track by separating them based on level, but doing so ensures that content and skills are understood and attained for every student (albeit at different stages), whereas a “one size fits all” approach may leave many behind.

Furthermore, the collaborative element of “think-pair” exercises between students makes a virtue of the classroom’s size. Working with peers is a fruitful avenue for student learning and engagement. Within a flexible grouping system, students can develop their skills and vital ability to work with others by being paired with their counterparts at a similar level.

While some may fear that this could leave students behind, success begets success. Weaker students successfully completing manageable assignments are liable to build upon that triumph and thus have a greater chance of closing the gap to - or at least staying within touching distance of - the students at the top of the class.

Strong leadership and clear rules

Ill-discipline is an inescapable side effect of the oversized classroom. James Levin and James Nolan’s 1996 The Principles of Classroom Management identify clearly the correlation between classroom size and instances of bullying, inattention, throwing objects, teasing and

the use of vulgar language. While to a certain degree this is inevitable, strong leadership presents the clearest avenue for a teacher to keep misbehaviour to a minimum.

Many teachers will have an impulse towards a certain degree of classroom leniency, but a relaxed atmosphere quickly becomes a rowdy one in a room packed to the hilt with teenagers. Clear and firmly reinforced guidelines as to what is allowed and what is not within the classroom may feel Machiavellian, but doing so will lend credibility to a teacher’s leadership of the classroom and maintain order in an environment where it can easily be lost.

A culture of fear is, of course, neither desirable nor required, but clear boundaries are essential. A student is far more likely to learn in an environment where she can engage with the content of the lesson, rather than being swept up in a restless atmosphere of distraction. Establishing such an environment demands a teacher who steps up as a leader and sets non-negotiable boundaries within their classroom.

Different sizes, different degrees

There remains no clear consensus amongst the education community as to what exactly constitutes an “oversized” classroom, leaving different teachers free to apply their own definitions. Some will consider near thirty students to be the time when their approach needs to be adapted, others far less.

Wherever you seek to draw the line, however, the fact is that an oversized classroom will require tweaks to your teaching norm in order to make sure class time retains its value.

Adopting strategies that foster student-teacher relationships, that keep weaker students engaged and learning, and that maintain order will go a long way towards overcoming the obstacles posed by an oversized classroom and delivering value for the individual students that make up the whole.


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