March 17, 2005

Cornellians Debate Class Sizes

Print More

The answer to the debate about whether all classes should be small is in no way a simple one. While most Cornell students and faculty agree that smaller class sizes are more conducive to a stimulating and effective learning experience, many admit that it is worthwhile to sit in a large class if it means gaining access and learning from highly qualified, award-winning professors.

Since fall of 2003, Peter S. Cohl ’05, a member of the Image Committee of the Student Assembly, has repeatedly appealed to the Cornell administration as well as to the Student Assembly to reduce class sizes at Cornell, not only to improve how well students learn in the classroom, but also to make a significant jump in rankings.

“If we could reduce the percentage of classes with more than 50 students and increase the percentage of classes with less than 20 students, it would help dramatically in our rankings, far more than any marketing would do,” Cohl said.

In the most recent USNews and World Report ranking of the nation’s best colleges, Cornell ranks 14th overall, with a 68-ranked 44 percent of courses with 20 students or less, and a 123rd-ranked 23 percent of courses with 50 students or more. Looking at the top 25 universities in the nation gives an even more surprising picture: Cornell ranks last in regards to how many classes have fewer than 20 students as well as how many classes have over 50 students.

According to Cohl, Cornell ranked sixth in 1999, when 74 percent of classes had under 20 students, and 10 percent of classes had more than 50.

“Cornell’s own data shows that rankings do matter,” he added.

“They should do everything they can to improve rankings. Rankings are important because nearly everyone chooses colleges based on rankings,” said Elliot Klass ’06.

According to the University Registrar’s records of courses at Cornell for this semester, however, 81 percent of courses have under 20 students while 7.6 percent of courses have over 50 students. The Registrar includes recitations, laboratory sections and independent studies with a total of 3610 courses, which, according to Cohl, partially explains the discrepancy between what USNews has indicated and what the Registrar has recorded.

“If they can report it differently, I’m all for it,” Cohl said. But, according to Cohl, chances were that USNews was not counting such lab sections and independent studies from all schools, and the large difference in class sizes between Cornell and fellow elite schools would remain to be questioned.

Many students agreed that large lectures created a different and oftentimes difficult learning environment than a small class would provide. Linna Chen ’08, who is currently majoring in psychology, was shut out of a 300-student psychology class because they stopped accepting freshmen into the course.

“[Big lectures] don’t really allow for questions, and you can’t talk to the professor as easily,” Chen said.

“Professors do as good a job as they can with classes of that size but it’s often hard to be able to convey all the information well when the environment really isn’t that conducive to students asking questions [or] being able to actively participate,” said one freshman in Industrial and Labor Relations.

Ronald Ehrenberg, Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and director of Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, agreed that smaller classes would be good for students, but said that “but the nature of the University is that we can’t offer all small classes.” He added that we were less wealthy than fellow universities, with relatively fewer faculty.

However, Cohl argued that reducing class sizes was financially feasible.

“We’re number 3 in terms of raising money. The University of Michigan or the University of California at Berkeley have a fraction of our financial resources. If they can do it, why can’t we?” Cohl said.

Prof. J. Robert Cooke, biological and environmental engineering and the former dean of faculty, conducted a study in 1994 investigating the impact of class sizes on students’ learning experiences. While Cooke began the study believing that large classes were adversely affecting how well students were learning, he finished the study believing that “class sizes is almost irrelevant, other than it influences the kinds of things you can do [in the classroom].”

Cooke believed that it was not worth the extra funds necessary to break up large classes. If a big class is broken up into ten smaller ones, it would require ten times the number of faculty needed to teach the course, Cooke argued.

“But would the quality of the course be ten times better?” He asked. “The tuition for students would go through the roof.”

“Big classes allow for small classes. Financially, if you try to break up big classes, you can’t afford small classes … To have a Nobel Laureate professor teach an introductory course gains you something,” said Prof. Charles Walcott, neurobiology and behavior and the current dean of faculty. “If a professor is doing a good job with a lot of students, where’s the harm?”

“Is [the classroom] a stimulating intellectual environment? The issue is the quality of the experience and how you’re treated in the class,” Cooke added. As a result of the study, Cooke helped create the current system where student identification photos are distributed to each faculty member, so that they may choose to learn the students’ names.

“I don’t mind big classes if it’s a good professor. That would be worth it,” Klass said.

Cohl responded differently to the claim that large classes with good professors were still conducive to learning.

“The idea is about having more qualified teachers teaching more classes. … The faculties of Cornell’s peer institutions also include prize winning professors. Outstanding instructors, whether they are Nobel, Pulitzer, or McArthur prizewinners, form the core of any elite institution. That’s not the problem. The question is how to reduce Cornell’s percentage of large classes and increase the number of seminars. Berkeley, UCLA and Michigan, each have similar quantities of esteemed faculty, but somehow manage to restrict the number of large classes,” Cohl said.

Cooke pointed to an instance where Emeritus Prof. Daniel Sisler, applied economics and management, taught a course with over 800 students, but was blind and knew students by the sound of their voices. Regardless of this setback, however, Cooke said that the class still received rave reviews, because Sisler arrived in class one hour early and stayed one hour late in order to get to know his students.

“Famous classes such as government 161, or the wines class, or psychology 101 are anomalies. Everybody loves Kramnick. We’re not going to eliminate them,” Cohl said.

Some Cornellians do not mind that certain courses tend to be larger.

“Big classes are good in the beginning when we’re freshmen … we don’t have a lot to say in class. [Higher level] courses are better in the seminar setting, [because] there needs to be more one-on-one time,” said Steve Lang ’05.

“Shared discussions deserve smaller classes, and the more technical courses are fine with medium-large size lectures,” added Tabari Alexander ’06.

“In general, the number of students in each course gets smaller as you reach 300 or 400 level courses,” said David Yeh, assistant vice president and university registrar.

“Each class size offers certain advantages … Some faculty can effectively teach to large sizes of students,” said Kent Hubbell, dean of students. “But we can’t play to the USNews and World Report necessarily.”

Ehrenberg conducted a study titled “The Class Size Controversy” in February that stated, “[Class sizes] could affect how much time the teacher is able to focus on individual students and their specific needs rather than on the group as a whole. … Our point is that reductions in class sizes are but one of a number of policy options that can be pursued to improve student learning.”

However, Cohl said that students’ GPAs are also being affected by large classes.

A study conducted in February by Prof. E.C. Kokkelenberg, economics, Binghamton University, stated, “One could argue that … faculty [members] are reluctant to give poor grades in small classes but more willing to award low grades to more anonymous students in large classes.”

Cohl added that class sizes ultimately affect student satisfaction and academic performance, leading to unhappy non-contributing alumni who were less likely to promote their alma mater. Large classes, he said, make it difficult for students to build bonds with professors which would usually translate to recommendations.

“This is disadvantaging our students in comparison to competing schools,” he said.