Big class, small class or one-to-one?

(This post by Mr Aaron Ng first appeared on his tutoring blog on 29 October 2014. It is reproduced with permission.)

By Aaron Ng

The answer as to what is the appropriate class format for a student who requires tuition really depends on whom you are asking.

Those who run large classes will tell you how small classes or one-to-one tutoring is inefficient and large classes are more value for money since fees tend to be much cheaper and content quality is maintained with properly a planned curriculum.

Tutors choosing the small-class format will argue that large classes are run on a cookie-cutter basis and is no different from school. One-to-one tuition is also generally very expensive, especially if the tutor is extremely qualified, experienced and popular. Also, one-to-one tuition is perhaps the most inefficient way of teaching since the tutor basically can’t do anything else if the student is working on a problem.

A small class-format sits nicely in between, allowing each student a sizeable slice of the tutor’s attention, and while one student is working on a problem, the tutor can spend that time addressing another student’s question personally. Cost-wise, it’s less costly than hiring a one-to-one tutor yet there’s a significant level of individual attention that the tutor can devote to each student.

The one-to-one tutor’s argument is simple: the student has my undivided attention and therefore I can highly customise tuition to cater to every student’s unique learning characteristics and academic ability, something which is impossible in a large-class format. Even for the small-class format, the tutor will not be able to offer the same level of attention and customisation as the one-to-one tutor.

So, which format works best for students? As someone who has taught using all three formats (my biggest classes were approximately 200 strong), I think there’s no clear-cut answer.

Teaching a big class is actually the least demanding format for the tutor. There’s a lot of upfront investment of time because a well-thought curriculum is necessary, but once that is done, pretty much the same material can be repeated over and over again, perhaps with some minor occasional updates. For students, they generally are passive recipients; the tutor cannot afford the time to take individual questions during class because the need to complete the planned curriculum for that day takes priority. For students who are generally self-motivated and reasonably intelligent, such a format works. For those with attention issues or are relatively slower in learning, a large class format isn’t ideal.

It appears that the one-to-one format is the best approach as a good tutor would be able to calibrate his teaching according to the characteristics of his student. Of course, this means the tutor has to spend lots of time thinking about how best to help the student. However, in a one-to-one setting, the advantage of focusing attention on just one student can become a disadvantage; without inputs from other participants, the breadth of learning is greatly reduced, unless the tutor is highly proactive in anticipating knowledge gaps in the student.

In a small group setting, learning is more interactive. Input from one student becomes input for the entire class, and that often sparks further input from other students. Everyone in the group benefits from everyone else’s questions, which is a very effective way of plugging the entire class’ knowledge gaps. Also, in a small group, students can easily see how their classmates are performing and this spurs healthy competition, especially if the tutor knows how to manage group dynamics to harness the innate competitiveness of students through the inclusion of competitive learning activities.

It appears that small group classes offer the most number of advantages, but how small is small? There is no universal agreement. I’ve seen some tuition outfits claiming 8 to 12 students as small class. Personally, I think that 4 or fewer is optimal. The tutor can give significant time to address individual students and there are sufficient student numbers to reap the benefits of group learning.

Of course, the most important factor is still the tutor. An incompetent tutor teaching using any format to teach will still be ineffective.

About The Author

Aaron holds a M.A. degree and B.Soc.Sci (Hons) degree from NUS. He won the NTUC Income Prize for being the top student in his major during his undergraduate study. Prior to NUS, Aaron graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College and The Chinese High School, now collectively known as Hwa Chong Institution.


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