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What’s the ideal class size for learn-to-code programs?

June 03, 2022

If you want to reskill non-tech talent for tech roles, you’ll need to decide the ideal class size for your learning program. Do you keep it small and intimate to ensure each learner gets individualized attention? Or do you open your program to a larger group with the goal of extending the opportunity to more people?

To explore this question, Pluralsight spoke with senior instructor Dana Wyatt, who teaches learn-to-code academies. In the interview below, she walks through what to consider when deciding your cohort size.

What key factors do learn-to-code program sponsors need to keep in mind?

Dana Wyatt: Learn-to-code programs are inherently stressful. During the first week or two, students tend to be energetic and enthused. But as the topics get harder, and the knowledge they accumulate becomes more extensive, four things happen: 

  1. Participants can become overwhelmed.

  2. Some begin to doubt their abilities.

  3. Students often become exhausted, and with exhaustion comes poor decision making.

  4. Life can get in the way as adult learners juggle outside responsibilities with their coursework. (This means the instructor, at times, needs to help people catch up.)

It's the instructor’s job to know when these four things happen—and then to adjust, console, encourage, support and help learners build the stamina and grit to move past obstacles.

The bigger the class size, the harder it is to spot when learners are struggling.

What if a learn-to-code sponsor is trying to save money by increasing class size?

DW: To get the most from your learn-to-code investment, you want everyone to graduate from the program. And you want everyone to be able to apply their technical education in a job. If students drop out or don’t learn, you’re not saving money. 

Here’s an example from a recent program: One of the students was ready to drop out of the class during her first capstone project. It was a Tuesday and the capstone was due Friday. That Tuesday night, I had a two-hour conversation with her and told her I believed in her. I knew she could succeed. Three days later, she turned in the second-best project out of 20 students.

As an instructor, I had to know this struggle was happening to be able to provide support. I needed the opportunity and time to talk with her, and I needed her trust to believe what I was saying. That trust happens through 1:1 connections. The larger your class size, the less time you have to connect with each participant. We could have lost this exceptional student in a cohort of 25 or 30.

Does it really make a difference if you add five or 10 more students to a class?

DW: It becomes a math issue. Here’s what I mean by that: When you give lab assignments, and students have questions or get stuck, the more people there are in the class, the longer the “help line” becomes. In a learn-to-code program, you cannot move on if people are still struggling with a topic, so now you fall behind the scheduled pace.

Having a second instructor in the course can mitigate this issue, but then you’ve erased any savings you were trying to achieve.

Also, the larger the class size, the less the group tends to bond. Ideally, you want students to become a cohesive, supportive unit that works together and helps each other. They are learning how to function as a software development team.

Smaller cohorts tend to build a tighter sense of community and have more robust class discussions. They talk about different ways to solve problems. The ability to listen to others’ perspectives and weigh the merits of different courses of action are vital soft skills that learn-to-code participants need to cultivate.

Further, some people are uncomfortable speaking up in a group, and the larger the class, the harder it is for these individuals to ask questions and seek help.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage learn-to-code sponsors to cap classes at 20 participants.

What else is important to consider when deciding ideal class size for a learn-to-code program?

DW: The more adult learners you have in an instructor-led (ILT) or virtual instructor-led (VILT) program, the harder it is to assess participants’ skills, development needs and how well they’re progressing. 

You need to be able to see that a student didn’t finish something, or that they got it wrong or that someone is struggling with a concept (whether or not they’re aware of their misunderstanding). You have to see it happen to figure out where the disconnect is.

In addition to technical skills, the ideal learn-to-code program teaches students how to:

  1. Find their problem when they don’t know what it is (ways to research a problem)
  2. Learn (some participants need strategies for studying and problem-solving)
  3. Be resilient in the face of a steep learning curve and inevitable setbacks
  4. View failure as a growth opportunity instead of a road block

These aren’t things you assess with quizzes. I need to know my students and regularly talk one-to-one with them to know how they’re progressing in these areas. 

Further, I need to be able to monitor students’ social/emotional state so I can adapt my teaching strategy if participants are grappling with information overload.

In learn-to-code programs that draw from underrepresented groups, it’s common for students to say things such as, “No one has ever believed in me.” These students need to know that I support them. 

It’s a privilege to meet them where they are and walk with them to their new future. I get to support them as they change their lives and the trajectory of their future—their economic status, the ability to own a house and get health insurance and all the other things that come with a tech job.

Larger class sizes dilute an instructor’s ability to connect with learners in this deep way.

What other questions do you have about coding bootcamps to reskill non-tech talent for software, IT and data roles?