A Reflection on Large Multi-level Classroom
Janak Raj Pant
This is a short reflection on my teaching experience in a large multilevel class at university level in Sindhuli. In this piece, I discuss the opportunities and challenges in a large multi-level classroom. My focus is on how large classrooms can be made maximally beneficial for the students. I conclude by emphasizing that all language classrooms are diverse in one or another way and the larger a class the more diverse it is likely to be. It is our level of awareness, attention and devotion as a teacher that can address the challenges of the large multilevel class into opportunities for the students in their learning.
There are varied perceptions of a large classroom among the ELT professional as well as the other stake holders. For a teacher who does different activities for which the students need to move around a class in which such activities cannot be done very efficiently because of the high number of the students is a large class. For a teacher who basically delivers lectures the same class might not be a large class so far he or she is audible, can maintain non-verbal communication with the students, and can monitor the activities of the students. In the both of these contexts, the idea of large class is at substance level different but still it is not different at pragmatic level. So, it seems more beneficial not to leave it to the teacher to define a large class in their context, based on their teaching strategies, the resources available, and the strategies they can execute. As Baker and Westrup (2000) state, ‘A large class can be any number of students, if the teacher feel there are too many students for them all to make their progress’.
The class I am going to talk about is the class of B. Ed. first year students a community college in Sindhuli. Usually more than 80 students attend the class. It is a class on general English. Different learners have different level of language proficiency varying from beginner to upper intermediate. Some of them study major English while others study other subjects such as Nepali education, population education. I found them differing in terms of their interests. Some of them have keen interest to learn English for academic purpose while others are keen interested in English for communication. However, for majority of them to pass the examinations is the ultimate aim. It is quite significant to note that for some others it is simply matter of formality to attend the class no motivation in learning at all. For some of them, being inside the class is equal to learning, they expect everything done by teachers for their learning expect copying, they remain silent in the class. The peer influence, family background, their own life orientation has deep rooted integrative influence in them. There is even terrible group of the students who have their pleasure in disturbing the class and do not have any intention to study. They just behave like visitors; for them learning is not any goal at all.
However, in spite of limitations like the above, there are a number of good things about large classes. First of all, the learners with higher level of English language proficiency have been good model in the classroom and it is good to push the weaker learners too. The learners with higher level of language proficiency have been the source of motivation for the weaker ones. Actually they are made the source of motivation.
Likewise, the learners with different cultural background have been significant in order to create communication gap in the classroom activities so as to form genuine language learning activities. It is also useful to address and illustrate several social issues in general English course.
In such large classes, I have always found willing volunteers to actively participate in classroom activities. Such classes are livelier than the smaller ones. So, it is easy to move them towards any direction. I have found the students learning from each other. One the one hand, it has been source of motivation for the one who have been supporting and on the other hand, he could support rest of the friends. This promotes mutual learning and challenges each learner appropriately. In this case brighter learners have challenges to maintain their position while the weaker ones have challenge to be as good as the brighter ones.
There is another advantage, such situation reflects real life situation as real life situations are also full of diversities. It has caused a number of challenges as well. First of all, it is quite difficult manage appropriate level of input in course of instruction. It is impossible to satisfy individual need as well. It is so because the same input becomes easy for on group and very difficult for another group. However it is possible to address such problems by some of the ways to make the lesson useful for all the learners in one or another way. Hadfield and Hadfield (2008) have shown the possibility in the following words:
It may feel like an impossible task to try to satisfy all the individual needs of your students, and you are right! But there are some practical things you can do to make sure that there is something for everyone in each of your lessons (p.152).
Similar is the case with other activities. Setting home work is even more complicated. In order to overcome this problem, I usually set the multilevel task and graded exercise to promote independent learning of an individual student. I found learning more useful than in a normal case as because we have variety of learners with the varying with varying expectations.
Having outlined some of the advantages of large classes, let me now turn to the drawbacks of them, because it would be unfair to not do so at the same time. But while presenting the challenges, I will also include how to address those challenges.
In large classes, it is difficult to monitor classroom activities and conduct class progress tests because if the teacher cannot reach all the students in order to monitor and we cannot have enough time for individual feedback and whole class feedback might not be very effective. Gallery walk and group feedback can be helpful for addressing this challenge.
Large classes also make it very difficult to counsel the students individually, mainly because of the number of students. In many cases we might not have detailed information in order to support students. When I teach a large class, I know little about most of my students; as a result, I don’t how to counsel students even if I can manage some time for them.
Sometimes, in large classes, students with low motivation influence the students with high motivation level. There is always possibility that students are influenced by the peer pressure. It is equally possible for the laborious and sincere learners to influence the lazy or insincere ones and vice versa. The existence of the latter case is challenge for me. I have found acknowledging former instance has been helpful and somehow preventive for the latter case.
Students in large classes are often likely to dodge classroom activities and can go off the task. Such class is also likely to go noisy. Immediate performance based task can help us to improve the situation. There are always some late arrivals and some passenger students (the students who enjoy the lessons like passengers view (not focused, not intensive, not rigorous). For me nothing is as helpful as being strict in terms of the norms of the classroom.
In large classes, the teacher always has to speak very loudly in order to be audible in the class. Occasional written instruction and the systematic and consistence use of gesture is significant for me in many cases. The existing diversities in such situation takes longer time and how carefully you design the activities in the classroom the are student for whom it does not become very much relevant. It is also difficult to remember their names which can become another complexity in setting activities and designing the activities.
Obviously, dealing with a large group of people requires a complex set of social and professional skills. Let us take a very simple example. Let us suppose that someone slaps a child. What will he or she do? There are so many possible ways in which the child will behave: the child will flee, will respond violently, will start crying, will ask you why you slapped him/her, will rush to his or her parents and ask them to slap you in turn, and so on and so forth. The same might be the case of positive response. Let’s say you offer a candy to a child in the street: what will the child do? Takes your candy and thank you, looks at you feels shy and goes away, take the candy and goes away, does not take your candy and says “no thank you”, becomes afraid of you and leaves the place, and so on.
Learners in the class have diverse experience, cultural understanding, self esteem, level of motivation, needs, aims, interests, context, facilities, attitude, etc. So, naturally they are likely to behave differently in the language class as well. The similar is the case even in smaller classes so diversity is the norm of language class rather than the exception. You will have diverse students whatever criteria you use in grouping them. It is essential to some extent as well. So, teaching, more than dealing with people in ordinary situations, requires highly advanced skills.
Larger class exerts some pressure on the side of the teachers to be more efficient and deal with the existing challenges. So, it makes teachers strategic and more competent in their profession.
Dewan, S. (2003). Teaching large multilevel classes. Journal of NELTA, 8:158-162.
Hadfield, J. K. & Hadfield, C. (2008). Introduction to teaching English. Oxford: OUP.
Baker, B. & Westrup, H. (2000) The English Language Teacher’s Handbook: How to teach large classes with few resources. London: Continuum.
Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP.