Teaching Small Classes

More than three-fourths of KU class sections have fewer than 30 students, and many instructors teach classes with as few as five students. How does our teaching change in such an intimate setting? What are the best practices for helping students learn in laboratory environments? What about graduate students, who want to expose themselves to new content as well as professional modes of behavior? The material on this page helps instructors address those questions, providing information on everything from studio courses to independent studies.

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An accessible version of the documents on this site will be made available upon request. Contact cte@ku.edu to request the document be made available in an accessible format.

Small Classes Info

Teaching a small number of students occurs in various academic disciplines: architecture, music, art, physical education, and others. As McKeachie (2002) explains, in studio courses you should allow students maximum freedom to experience successful completion of a task or part of a task, but give enough guidance so that they won’t get bogged down by errors. Learning experiences should move from simple to complex, with steps ordered so that each new problem can be solved. Here’s some general advice on teaching studios:

  • Students need practice, followed by feedback.

  • Too much feedback may be more than the student can assimilate. Don’t try to correct everything on the first try.

  • Feedback can discourage students. Provide some encouragement, as well as identification of errors.

  • Feedback about mistakes won’t help if the learner doesn’t know how to avoid errors. Suggest what to try next.

  • High-level skills are developed through much practice. One successful performance doesn’t signify that the student will achieve consistent success.

  • Practice with varied examples is often motivating and more likely to transfer to later performances than is simple drill and repetition.

  • Students need opportunities for self-evaluation with feedback about the evaluation, as well as the work being evaluated.

Laboratories set science apart from many subjects. At their worst, labs are viewed as costly, time-consuming, “cookbook” approaches to experimentation. When taught well, however, laboratories can provide a unique experience for students to think like professional scientists, develop skills and techniques important to their discipline, and collaborate with peers.

During laboratories, instructors get to teach with concrete props. While props engage and involve students, they can also distract from the conceptual goals of the class. Clarify expectations early (e.g., “At the end of class the student should know how to set up and operate a ______”) and provide adequate opportunities for students to practice using equipment. Ensuring that students possess necessary technical skills will better allow instructors and students to focus on learning the process of science. Recently, professors Dena Register and Holly Storkel had a discussion regarding strategies for evaluating the type of work that students will face in clinical fields. 

Effective laboratories simulate the process of scientific inquiry. One way to achieve this goal is to allow students to design and conduct individual experimental investigations as part of the course. Students can then experience the excitement that often accompanies scientific discovery, as well as practice critical thinking skills necessary for planning, executing, analyzing and interpreting a scientific study. It's also important to prepare students to interpret unexpected results by coordinating practical exercises with material taught in the lecture. If students have a solid foundation in the scientific principles that drive the experimental questions, they’ll have a context with which to interpret results, thereby linking and reinforcing concepts covered in both lab and lecture.

Laboratories provide an opportunity for—and necessitate—teacher involvement. Effective supervision will facilitate inquiry, allow instructors to recognize students having difficulties with fundamental concepts, and provide students with crucial links between data and scientific concepts as they analyze their data.

Helen Alexander, KU ecology and evolutionary biology, and Cathy Collins, professor of biology at Bard College, suggest the following:

“Laboratory courses are typically designed to give students hands-on experience in science. Students often like the interaction and small group activities. However, they can get frustrated by long class periods and a sense of chaos if laboratory exercises are poorly designed. Teachers, in turn, enjoy the opportunity to get to know students and teach experientially, but find that planning the course, carrying out the exercises, and grading the reports take much more time than the typical lecture course. Based on our experience, several factors can improve the experience for teachers and students:

  • “Clarify the link between laboratory exercises and big picture course concepts. During the planning phase, identifying links will help instructors choose exercises that truly accomplish learning goals; while teaching, such links provide students a context in which to connect isolated laboratory lessons to broader course topics.
  • “Time spent on logistics and advance planning are key to successful laboratory exercises. Laboratory classes can be derailed if procedures or equipment don’t work or supplies are missing. Because students will often have different backgrounds in the course content and other skills (e.g. use of statistics software, microcentrifuge, etc.), preparation of ‘how to’ handouts saves time for students and reduces frustration.
  • “Ideally, laboratory classes should teach students to think like scientists by allowing them to pose questions, formulate hypotheses, and design and conduct studies that address their hypotheses. Too often students look for a correct answer because laboratories are structured to obtain specific results. Allow for some portion of the lab course to be devoted to studies that are not cookbook in nature, then take advantage of the small group format to facilitate discussion of unexpected results.
  • “Students need rapid feedback, both in terms of answers to questions on laboratory procedures and on laboratory write-ups. Teachers, however, can be overwhelmed by the workload of reading many papers. We can reduce frustration on both sides by breaking assignments into parts that are due on different dates and providing examples of the type of products we expect.”

McKeachie (2002) outlines four different styles of conducting laboratory instruction.

  1. Expository Instruction–Students verify preordained results, develop manipulation skills and follow exactly prescribed directions. This style is useful for larger classes as it requires little instructor engagement, though there is a possibility that almost no meaningful learning takes place.
  2. Inquiry Instruction–Students mimic the process of constructing knowledge by formulating their own problem based on the information at hand. There are no preordained outcomes with this method, though concealing the details of the solution from students can be difficult.
  3. Discovery Instruction–Also called “guided inquiry,” this style starts with a preordained outcome. The students are not told the outcome; rather, the instructor guides students toward the outcome through discussion and evaluation of proposed experimentation. Discovery instruction allows students to own their learning and often results in deeper understanding.
  4. Problem-based Learning–Instructors craft a case study with selected evidence, and students uncover the lesson the instructor intends to teach. In this context, students learn to create their own questions with a strong foregrounding by the instructor.

Resources: McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Based on her research on teaching graduate students, as well as her experience as a graduate student at KU, Ann Volin (2003) suggests that successful graduate seminars include clear goals, adequate preparation, and follow-up. Often,  professors begin seminar preparation with their experience as a student as the sole blueprint. Augmenting that experience with the following ideas can streamline benefits and increase student learning:

  • Model your professional leadership. You are undoubtedly an expert about the seminar topic; thus, your presentation of the seminar material should model relevant skills for teaching, learning, and presenting in your profession. A seminar offers the chance for you to relay to graduate students the professional expectations of your discipline. It’s best not to assume that students know what these are—make them explicit.
  • Set clear course objectives. Articulate not only what you plan to achieve for the semester, but also what each session will accomplish so you can judge whether your plan will achieve its intended benefits.
  • Make behavioral intentions clear. What are your expectations for student learning? Do students know what behaviors, attitudes, and ideas you hope to address through this seminar? These fundamentals can be taken for granted in a seminar that assumes advanced students, but again, make even these overt.
  • Structure each class meeting. Allowing classes to “go with the flow,” which may sound like an idealized intellectual process, leads away from course goals. You have limited time for intense learning in a seminar.
  • Plan student-led discussions. Students can—and should—lead discussions based on papers they have written or topics they have researched. Teachers can coordinate, facilitate, and comment on presentations. An interactive format is crucial; there must be a reason for students to attend class instead of reading material on their own. Watch out for sessions that center on a presenter and fail to draw out the group’s expertise.
  • Encourage students to help each other. No doubt many students are in class because of their deep interest in a subject. By joining their peers, they own the material in a way that professors cannot create on their own. Let seminar interactions build upon skills that each student brings to the seminar. Through these interactions, graduate students become each other’s professional colleagues.
  • Have an obligatory follow-up. Not only do graduate students need the opportunity to practice and demonstrate skills, but they also need feedback. If that feedback exists in a vacuum—for instance, at the end of the semester when there will be no opportunity to correct and modify skills—it’s less than optimal. Figure in a realistic revision that will demonstrate the application of the feedback.

In his course portfolio, “Re-envisioning Teaching Graduate Seminars,” Anton Rosenthal, KU Department of History, describes how he implemented backward design in a graduate course, “The Global City.” Rather than beginning with a set of readings and expecting students to fit into a “one size fits all” approach, Rosenthal first identified goals he wanted students to achieve by the end of the course.

Since one goal was to prepare graduate students for their professional lives, Rosenthal developed assignments reflecting that goal. Students didn’t write a long research paper; instead, they wrote multiple short papers (five–six pages) that employed methods, theories, and sources. For their cumulative work, students developed a teaching unit. Rosenthal observed students’ improvement in several areas, such as writing, research analysis, understanding journal articles, and performing comparative analysis.

As you can see, teaching graduate students involves preparation, motivation, and consideration of the specific goals you want the students to achieve in your course. Check out this Two-Minute Mentor video with KU faculty members Kris Bruss and Bonnie Johnson on strategies for teaching graduate seminars. In addition, CTE has also developed a bibliography for job-seeking doctoral candidates to reference as they prepare to enter the job market. You are welcome to include this bibliography in your graduate seminars in order to acquaint graduate students with texts that will help them represent their skills as scholars and teachers. 

Resources: Volin, A. (2003, February). Seven ideas for graduate seminars. Teaching Matters, 6, 8.

Cynthia Colwell Dunn, Music and Dance, shares these observations about teaching one-on-one:

Individualized instruction requires a special set of teaching skills, whether analyzing students’ work in studios, mentoring a graduate student through a research project, or evaluating behaviors in off-campus practica. There are many issues to think about before and during one-on-one interactions that are different from the typical classroom experience.

When teaching one-on-one, it’s important to determine guidelines for availability and set boundaries for the relationship. Here are some questions Dunn says all instructors should ask themselves as they begin to organize an independent study:

  • In the area of availability, will you establish set office hours or be available by appointment or on a drop-in basis?
  • What parameters will you set for contact: at your office, by email, or on your office, home, or cell phone?
  • In the area of setting boundaries, will students call you by your first name or your professional salutation?
  • What kind of contact will you have with students outside the arranged time?
  • Will you establish a personal relationship?
  • Will this [relationship] be affected by gender or age?
  • How will you balance professional versus personal "sharing" (i.e., teacher versus therapist role identification)?

As Dunn explains: “Approaching your teaching preparation is markedly different in the one-on-one setting. When formatting the lesson, you as the teacher have to determine what kind of balance of teaching strategies and student engagement is going to be appropriate."

  • Will you lecture or do more exploratory or seminar-type teaching?
  • How much will students be responsible for presenting information?
  • How will you provide feedback — oral, written, or both?
  • What types of prompts will you use to facilitate discussion when it is just the two of you?
  • Will you create a learning agreement that functions much like a contract of what the student hopes to accomplish, how they will accomplish it, and by when, or will you create a syllabus with pre-established criteria?

Although there aren’t easy, right answers to these questions, Dunn says, thinking about them as you embark on one-on-one teaching can make the difference between success and frustration.

Another perspective

In addition to Dunn’s observations, we encourage you to check out these guidelines (.docx) that Ann Cudd, former professor of philosophy at KU, prepared for students interested in pursuing independent study. We also encourage you to consider her suggestions regarding mentoring students and advising independent work:

“One-on-one work with students is some of the most intellectually and personally rewarding work we do. It’s also the most time-consuming. Students need to be mentored and advised if they are to learn the standards of good work in your discipline and how to create that work. Depending on whether they’re undergraduate, beginning graduate, or advanced graduate students, they’ll need more or less intervention from you.

“There are many course names for the credits students take to do independent work: independent study, directed readings, thesis, dissertation. The most important thing to do is to set the terms of the interaction from the beginning. First, I insist that the student come up with the topic area and describe it in some detail. Independent work should be initiated by students with some idea of what they want to learn. Next we agree on how much face-to-face interaction we’ll have and what we’ll do each time we meet. Then, we agree on readings and a schedule for handing in work that I’m to evaluate.

“Finally, there are two warnings I have for new faculty regarding mentoring and advising independent work. First, don’t take on much, if any, of this in a formal way your first year of teaching. Develop your courses and observe how others in your department do this mentoring work first. If you do plunge in, ask experienced faculty for advice. Second, don’t rehash a course from your department for individual students just because they ask you to. You shouldn’t consider yourself an overflow teaching resource, nor should you take it on yourself to offer a course for a student who, through no fault of yours, is unable or unwilling to take the course when offered by the department.”


Mentoring is another form of one-on-one interaction with students. Mentors are more than academic advisers or teachers. Johnson (1989) defines mentoring as an ongoing one-to-one relationship in which a more experienced individual offers advice, counsel or guidance to someone less experienced. Jacobi (1991) identifies three components of mentoring: direct assistance with career and professional development, emotional and psychological support, and role modeling.

Most successful mentoring experiences happen when mentor and mentee meet regularly, set clear goals, and balance friendly discussion with academic discourse. The best relationships are built on foundations of shared interests and mutual respect. The mentor-mentee relationship should be mutually beneficial, with each person gaining new perspectives and ideas from the other.


  1. Brown, D.G. (2000). Ed. Teaching with Technology. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.
  2. Johnson, C.S. (1989). Mentoring programs. In M.L. Upcraft, et al. (Eds.) The freshman year experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.