The first seminar

Quest U lecturer reflects on teaching the smallest class in his career


Today I met with the nineteen students taking the very first course I am teaching at Quest University Canada. This is a unique pedagogical experience for me, since I’ve never taught to a group of this size before.

As a graduate student, I did run tutorials of fifteen students or so, but tutorials are not the same kind of thing as the course itself. As a lecturer at several Canadian universities, my classes were never less than forty students and, in one notable instance, I lectured to a class of nearly four-hundred souls. My supervisions at Cambridge university comprised only three to four students per group.

One of the things that attracted me to Quest, and that students there tell me has been an attraction for them as well, is the fact that class sizes are capped at twenty students. This allows all courses to be run in seminar format, with everyone sitting at one table, all facing each other. Such classes were the highlights of my own experience as an undergraduate, so I’m very curious to see how they work out from a teaching perspective.

In Canada there has been considerable debate about the relation between class sizes and student learning. While I do not buy into the view that large lectures are severely devoid of learning potential, it is certainly the case that they have a very different feel than small seminars. Whether twenty students truly constitutes a seminar is an open question which I’ve yet to answer myself, but in any event small classes evince a kind of learning which takes place only when everyone knows each other, class discussion is prominent, and the potential for general anonymity given by the large lecture format is wholly precluded. From the instructor’s perspective, seminars involve much less “performance” than is required when you’re the talking head at the front of dozens or hundreds of students.

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