Exploring the Intersect of Management and Instruction: Applying the Span of Control to Education.

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Carol McKiel is a doctoral student in the Teacher Leadership Program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.  She works at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon as the coordinator of the Title III - Engaging Students grant.

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Carol McKiel, Coordinator of the Title III grant, Lane Community College

Instructors engage, encourage, and provide feedback for their students to develop intellectually. The meaningful relationships between instructors and students are important for student success.  But, higher education’s consistent use of large classes makes it difficult for many students to develop meaningful relationships.  Business’s span of control concept, the ratio of manager to employee, average 1:10, may offer a new perspective on this problem in higher education.  A small span of control allows managers to have frequent, personal contact with employees engaged in work requiring creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.  A large span of control is appropriate for automaton jobs.  Colleges are expected to graduate students with higher level skills, but are using a span of control used with automaton jobs.   


Effective instructors not only structure content to scaffold learning, they also engage, motivate, encourage, and provide feedback for their students to grow emotionally and intellectually (Kuh et al, 2005).  Instructors inspire their students to push past learning boundaries and develop more mature skills.  The academic and personal relationships students develop with faculty go beyond any particular classroom and affect the students’ overall success in higher education (Baxter Magolda, 2004; Chickering & Gamson, 1991; Tinto 1987).  Through these relationships students “see firsthand how experts think about and solve practical problems by interacting with faculty members inside and outside the classroom. As a result, their teachers become role models, mentors and guides for continuous lifelong learning”. (Indiana University, 2001, p. 18)
Yet despite the promise of a wide-range of positive learning outcomes from teacher/student relationships, it is often difficult for students to make personal connections with their instructors (Campbell, Künnemeyer, & Prinsep, 2008).  For a variety of reasons, higher education still organizes learning in traditionally large classes, and considers it the students’ responsibility to initiate and nurture direct relationships with their instructors (Kuh et al., 2005).  Every academic term, students find themselves trying to access their instructor’s attention in classes with thirty other students.  Outside class, the students must compete with all the other students their instructors may have for the term.  Tinto (1987) cautioned about the ramifications of the traditional large classes on student outcomes,
It is ironic that during this first year of college, when contact with other students and faculty is so important to retention, so many institutions structure courses so as to discourage contacts.  The short term economic gains thought to arise from greater efficiency in the allocation of resources (e.g., through large course enrollments) are often wrought at the expense of long-term losses in both retention and student development. (p. 151).
Management theory may provide a model that can help higher education justify smaller classes.  Management structures are organized with the recognition that there is an optimum ratio of supervisor to workers, the average being 1:10, that maintains the best outcomes (Davison, 2003).  Called span of control, the idea is that if the ratio of manager to employees is too large for their job functions, employees become dissatisfied and productivity drops.  Implicit in this model is that managers have a positive influence on the employees’ level of engagement and overall motivation with their jobs (Shell, 2003).  The meaningful, one-on-one contacts managers have with their employees helps overcome job difficulties and encourages employee growth and development.  The effect is real:  on average, businesses that maintain a small span of control, 1:6, experience larger revenue growth of 20% compared to companies with a large span of control, 1:8, that report a smaller growth of 5% (Davison, 2003).
The size of the span of control varies from organization to organization, but it is commonly recognized that as jobs become more complex and require greater levels of critical thinking, managers should supervise fewer employees.  The span of control may narrow to as small as 1:3 with jobs that require creativity, problem-solving, analysis, and learning.  With these jobs, managers must continually work with employees to reduce barriers and assure employee progress.  Alternatively, redundant, automaton jobs that require less thinking, may only need a span of control of 1:50 (McManus, 2007). 
The ratio of instructor to students could also be considered a span of control issue.  Like managers, instructors also affect people’s engagement, motivation, and progress (Chickering and Gamson, 1991, Tinto, 1987).  In order to facilitate optimal intellectual and skill development, instructors need to work closely with students (Kuh et al., 2005).  Since learning is not an “automaton” job, but instead, requires critical thinking, problem-solving and other high level skills, educators may want to consider span of control as a measure for appropriate class size. 
Businesses have used the span of control since the 1930’s (Gulick, 1937).  Over the past fifty years, a number of other fields have adopted span of control.  In prisons where adults can be locked up for poor behaviors, the average ratio of prison guards to inmates is 1:3, with ratios of 1:15 or higher shown to increase the level of violence in prisons (Mears, 2004). The basic military unit is composed of four to five soldiers who report to a team leader.  An emergency response squad is limited to eight members per supervisor. Even in education, the typical, organization chart for a university shows the president with no more than six direct reports, and in K-12 schools, the average ratio of principal to teachers is 1:13 (Meier & Bohte, 2003).  The question is - why has the span of control not been applied to the instructor to students ratio?
The answer may lie in the efficacy of former learning paradigms.  Until recently, the traditional education methods with the large class size have worked adequately.  Instruction was about content delivery which went from the instructor to the students.  Students in higher education absorbed content and learned discipline.  This traditional, one-direction, learning method can be effective.  People learn by reading books, listening to speeches, and watching television.  In the past, the graduates from this model successfully integrated into the work world.  But Vygotsky (1978) and other postmodern education scholars described learning as a socially constructed activity, a dialectic, where the instructor, with knowledge about the student, appropriately challenged the student’s constructs.  The student, in order to restore cognitive balance, reconstructed her/his mental model with the new information, which the instructor, in turn, again challenged.  Far from being a process of receiving content, learning was an ongoing cycle of building knowledge within the social interactions of the instructor and student.  Students who learn in this active cycle with instructors develop deeper understanding and more mature cognitive skills (Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007).
The recent, rapid shifts in an information world have changed what society needs from education.  Now employers want graduates who are not just disciplined, but who can think creatively, problem-solve complex issues, and analyze situations in order to develop innovative solutions (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 2002).  In addition, unskilled jobs are in decline which is pushing more people into higher education in the search for secure and satisfying employment.  According to the Department of Education (2004), from 1993 to 2003, the number of employed people holding a master’s degree increased by 3.2 million, while the number of employed people who had a high school diploma increased by fewer than 460,000.  Because of this enrollment surge more of today’s college students come from cultural backgrounds and have levels of academic and social preparation that may require more support than traditional educational structures can provide (Messineo, Gaither, Bott, & Ritchey, 2007).  The low retention and graduation rates at community colleges indicate higher education’s difficulty addressing this situation. The average first-year student retention rate at community colleges is 53%, and the graduation rate is 23% (ACT, 2009).
Higher education is trying to meet these new expectations, but with a structure designed for different outcomes.  Just like in businesses with a too wide span of control and disengaged employees, the large classes in higher education do not provide the student to instructor contact that produces the learning outcomes needed by society today.  In business, when the task requires greater problem-solving and critical thinking, the span of control is small so employees can meet more with their supervisors.  This also applies in education. Students need to learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and they are more likely to do so when working closely with faculty (Baxter Magolda, 2004).  A comparison of the literature on management and instruction indicates similarities between the manager’s and instructor’s job functions and impact on the success of employees and students, respectively.
Managers and instructors provide feedback to inform individuals of performance expectations.  Shell (2003) wrote that it was important for managers to articulate their expectations to employees and then discuss these expectations with employees in order to come to a common agreement about general work objectives.  He (2003) noted that the meetings between the manager and the employee improved the employee’s level of commitment to the job.  In a similar finding in education, Chickering and Gamson (1991) wrote that the feedback provided by instructors improved student achievement and satisfaction.  While some feedback was assessments of student progress, Chickering and Gamson (1991) stressed the importance of faculty working individually with students as an important factor in increased student achievement.
Maslow (1970) articulated that people wanted recognition as part of belonging to their groups.  Herzberg (2003) wrote that managers needed to acknowledge the employees’ work.  In his study of job motivators, Herzberg (2003) reported that employees listed “receiving recognition” as one of the five most important factors they wanted from their jobs.  Similarly, in education, Kuh et al. (2005) noted that faculty could improve student motivation by acknowledging the hard work students’ put into their assignments.  Kuh et al. (2005) found that when students received regular, positive feedback from their instructors, the students felt that their faculty cared about them and wanted them to succeed.  As a result, students became more engaged and pushed themselves academically. 
People want to feel competent and successful.  Managers are important for helping people satisfy this need.  McGregor (1960) suggested that the manager’s goal was to stimulate each employee’s growth and development which would result in improved performance and greater job satisfaction for the employee.  In addition, the manager was important to helping the employee adopt greater responsibilities in order to engage in more fulfilling work.  In their study with 242 Midwestern college students, Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhttacharya (2010) found that faculty’s formal and informal interactions with students increased student engagement and commitment to learning.  Instructors also stimulated students’ intellectual development and helped students become mature learners.  The researchers added that, while peer mentoring was helpful to student learning, the mentoring that faculty provided students was by far a more effective way for students to gain higher level skills which led to greater self-confidence.
 As social beings, people want meaningful relationships.  Satisfying this basic human need is important for employee and student retention and engagement.  Das (2003) wrote that the manager-employee relationship was the “third driver of engagement” (p. 26) and integral to maintaining productivity of the workplace.  Das (2003) noted that people did not engage with institutions, they engaged with other people.  Within higher education, Tinto (1987) also recognized the importance of relationships.  He wrote that the interactions between the students and the faculty were critical for the student’s “social and intellectual integration into the academic and social life of the campus” (p. 115).  Tinto (1987) warned that students who did not establish meaningful relationships were at greater risk for leaving college.
It appears that managers and instructors have many job functions in common.  Both managers and instructors motivate, encourage, and provide feedback for their employees and students, respectively.  Managers and instructors concern themselves with the growth and development of other human beings.  A goal of both managers and instructors is to develop an environment where people work to their potential.  The difference between managers and instructors is that managers perform these functions with ten people and instructors often work with over one hundred.
With the current economy, colleges are tempted to help balance budgets by increasing class size.  But just like the ineffectiveness of businesses increasing their span of control during economic downturns, this will probably not have the desired results.  Increasing the span of control also increases dissatisfaction which decreases productivity.  Rather than looking for a quick fix, this time of tight budgets is an opportunity for educators to take a new approach to designing learning structures and identify instructional delivery methods that allow for more productive learning opportunities.  With improvements in technology, students can receive content from a variety of media.  Can educators design a learning environment where students learn content asynchronously followed by one-on-one or small group sessions where instructors can appropriately challenge the students to learn more deeply and develop intellectually? 
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