Class

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This article is about a learning context, i.e., a broad context in which learning takes place.
See list of learning contexts

Definition

A class or class period refers to a general, widely found, type of learning environment with three key characteristics:

Short term for characteristic Details Situations ruled out
one-to-many There is a single (primary) explainer, and multiple (usually at least three) learners. NOTE: Some classes may have a small number (two or three) of explainers working in tandem. One-on-one tutoring
synchronicity and contiguity The class happens for a contiguous period of time with a specific start and a specific end, usually ranging from 5 minutes to a few hours. During this time, with the exception of short breaks, the explainer is mostly focused on the class, and learners are also expected to be mostly focused on the class. Pre-recorded lecture played at learner's discretion
explainer authority and homogenity of learner experience The explainer is generally considered the authority figure. The explainer controls the main action, including the main visual and auditory cues (chalkboards, physical demonstrations, slideshows) that learners are expected to ingest. This is the class content. Learners experience substantially similar class content (in terms of the inputs such as visual and auditory cues). Office hours where subsets of learners ask questions of the instructor; impromptu explanation sessions in a peer study group where one person temporarily takes the role of explainer.

A fourth assumption may be added if we wanted to restrict ourselves to physical classes, namely that the explainer and all the learners are in the same physical room. For our purposes here, we want to be inclusive of both physical and virtual classes, so we do not add this assumption.

Derivative terminology

  • Classroom refers to a physical space where physical classes are conducted. Whereas classes are moored in a specific time and tied to a specific explainer and set of learners, a classroom is a physical space where different classes may be conducted (at usually non-overlapping time intervals).
  • Course is a full package that may include classes, tests, and other offerings offered by one or more explainers to a set of learners.
  • Class script and class screenplay are notes an explainer uses to guide how the class is conducted, with the latter being much more detailed.
  • Class content refers to the final content of the class as experienced by learners (in terms of inputs such as visual and auditory inputs).

Types of activities in a class

The time in a class often breaks down into different kinds of activities. At a high level, there are four types of activities; usually only one type of activity is happening at a given time:

Activity Who's at center stage? Details How much of the class time does this usually take?
In-class explainer exposition Explainer The explainer is providing visual and auditory cues to learners, such as by speaking, writing, and presenting slides. Activities that may happen as small interludes within class exposition include cold calling and polling. For most classes, particularly those using direct instruction, this is the majority of class time.
In-class desk work Nobody Learners work on their own (usually on work assigned by the explainer) and the main visual and auditory cues are quiet. "Practical" classes tend to have larger amounts of in-class desk work (for instance, classes on needlework or physical training, or laboratory classes). In-class desk work is also a major activity in flipped classrooms.
In-class learner exposition An individual learner or subset of learners An individual learner (or subset of learners) presents or explains to the whole class. NOTE: There is a thin line between learners asking questions (with explainers still driving the conversation) and learners presenting their ideas and thoughts in depth; this is about the latter. This is common in flipped classrooms, discussion classes (usually with rapid switching from one learner to another), and also in inquiry-based learning (such as the Moore method).
In-class third-party consumption Third party (usually asynchronous via recordings) An example might be watching a video together. This differs from in-class desk work in that learners are not working at their own pace. This is rare for most types of classes, but may be common in classes that involve critiquing or reviewing audio/video material.

Examples

Classes are seen in many different contexts:

Type of classroom Where it's found Typical distinguishing characteristics
School class where the learners form a "section" of the school student body that studies many subjects together At least up till middle school and in many cases up till high school in many countries Students in the school are grouped (primarily based on age) into grades (classes). Students within each grade are grouped into sections (the sections may or may not differ from each other in terms of ability grouping or the set of subjects that students are taking). For the most part, students in the same section attend all courses together, and are usually tied to a single physical room (exceptions may includes classes that require specific equipment or more specialization, such as physical training and music).
School or college classroom where students have signed up for a course together Most college and university courses are structured like this. Some high school elective courses are also similarly structured. In the United States, this mode of education is seen middle school onward. The set of learners is the set of students who have signed up for a course, and more specifically for a particular section of the course with the specific instructor. The act of signing up may be constrained by various factors, such as degree requirements that cause them to sign up, availability of slots, time constraints, and prerequisite requirements imposed by the educational institution. In most such cases, the majority of students are close by in educational stage (e.g., the same year of college) but there could be a few students at much earlier or later overall educational stages; there could also be courses where the set of learners is not clustered around a specific educational stage.
Seminar or colloquium (single or series) Typically found in universities, these are individual talks or series of talks where a domain expert presents material to an audience that has some interest in the domain but may not know as much. The "learners" in this case are voluntary and, in many cases, walk-in: they choose to attend the seminar or colloquium, and are under no obligation to attend or stay. The learners may include people who are peers of or even senior to the explainer.
Summer camp or bootcamp or vocational education class Found in summer camps or bootcamps (such as programming bootcamps) There are a few ways this is different from a school or college classroom. First, the learners are usually much more self-selected and have a specific goal of getting some value out of the specific classes (though again, there could be classes they sign up for just because they have to). Second, the instruction itself tends to be more focused on imparting skills than conveying abstract knowledge, so things like in-class desk work are more common. Third, in many cases, the learner treats the experience as a somewhat unusual time and may be willing to put in additional effort to make the most of it, whereas for school or college education, each class is just part of normal, day-to-day life.

Parameters to evaluate classrooms on

The set of learners

The characteristics of a classroom are controlled largely by the set of learners. Some relevant parameters:

Parameter or parameter type What it means How it matters
Classroom size Number of learners The explainer's ability to provide individual attention to learners reduces as classroom size increases. However, larger classroom sizes allow for some classroom dynamics that are not possible with smaller sizes. (For instance, cold calling, polling, and interactive class discussions could work better for larger classrooms).
Prerequisites range and gap The extent to which the learners have various prerequisite knowledge and skills, and the extent of variation between learners in this knowledge and skills. An explainer is supposed to assist all learners with learning. Usually, large gaps in prerequisites between learners is a hindrance because the explainer cannot choose a single pace and method of explanation that works for all learners. In some cases, the explainer can turn it to an advantage by having the learners who are ahead assist the learners who are behind, or using other methods.
Interestedness range and gap The extent to which learners are interested in learning, and the gap between the most and least interested learners. Similar to prerequisites, interestedness can affect the strategy used by the explainer. For more interested learners, the explainer may cover some details that would satisfy their curiosity, whereas for less interested learners, the explainer may focus on covering the key points forcefully and highlighting why those should be interesting or relevant. A wide range of interestedness among learners poses a challenge for the explainer in selecting a strategy.
Learner mutual knowledge and cohesion Whether the learners know each other outside the classroom and form a unit outside the classroom If learners are together even outside the classroom (for instance, in a section-based model where learners in the same section study all classes together) then they may have more mutual dynamics. If learners only come together in the context of the classroom, any relationships they form are in the context of the classroom (note that for classrooms that cover the lecture component of a course, learners may interact for the other parts of the course like homework, which can be thought of as an intermediate state).

Explainer autonomy

Explainers may have or lack autonomy at different levels.

Aspect that the explainer may or may not have control over Details
The material to be covered In some cases, explainers have broad autonomy over what material to cover, whereas in others, the material to cover is predetermined. Sometimes, the situation is intermediate: there is some bare minimum that needs to be covered (and that learners will be tested on) but beyond that, the explainer has flexibility. For a course, the explainer may have flexibility as to the order in which to cover topics (as long as a set of topics is completed by the end) or may be constrained to cover topics in a specific sequence and pace.
The mode of instruction Explainers may be limited to a specific mode of instruction (such as direct instruction or inquiry-based learning) and may also be constrained in other tools they are allowed to use. For instance, explainers may be required to give homework, or forbidden from giving homework. See list of learning strategies for more background.
The class script and class screenplay Even with a fixed material to be covered and a predetermined mode of instruction, the explainer may have considerable flexibility to define and shape the classroom script -- what exactly to say when, how to use the boards and other props, whom to cold call, etc. On the other hand, there are educational contexts where the classroom script is basically provided to the explainer, who simply needs to execute on it more or less mechanically (albeit the explainer's knowledge and skill may still be needed to address learner questions or help clarify misconceptions). More scripted classrooms can reduce variance in outcomes but reduce the explainer's flexibility to adapt to the context of the learners; it makes sense when a huge amount of research into learner outcomes has gone in preparing the script, sufficient to offset the reduction in explainer flexibility. It may also make sense when the explainer is not as good at adapting to feedback from learners, so the loss of flexibility does not cause much loss.

The types of inputs received by learners

Learners receive inputs in the class context including inputs directly controlled by the explainer, as well as from the actions of other learners (who in turn may be responding to the explainer). A few examples (non-comprehensive) are below:

Type of input Input from explainer Input from other learners
Visual Facial and body expressions of explainer, written material shown by explainer (chalkboards, slideshows, video play, virtual screen shares), physical demonstrations by explainer Facial and body expressions of other learners, inter-learner notes
Auditory Explainer's words and delivery, auditory demonstrations by explainer (such as playing instruments), recordings) Talking by other learners, including talking sanctioned by the explainer and other communication