March 14, 2010

Colleges Experiment with Larger Class Sizes, Hoping to Increase Learning

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Most students at Cornell must take at least one Freshman Writing Seminar. These classes are usually capped at around eighteen students. But what happens when there are too many students to limit the size of every class? Recently, this has been the trend at many colleges. With the economic downfall, there are fewer professors to teach traditionally small classes. Therefore, colleges have come to face the problem of what to do with increasing class sizes. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a classic example is seen in the introductory English classes at California State University at Chico. These classes, just like Freshman Writing Seminars, had a small limit at twenty-two students. In the past four years, this number has increased to thirty students per section. This has been happening in many other classes, including upper-level classes, at colleges across the nation. While increased class sizes may not seem like a big deal to some, professors have reported feeling uncomfortable as they spend less one-on-one time with students. Also, the type of work is changing; less writing is being assigned, as it would take longer for professors to grade the essays of more students. What can be done to resolve the problem of over enrollment in traditionally small classes? At Chico State, English professors experimented with making classes much bigger. Three sections of the English class had ninety students, and then met for two hours a week in smaller sections of ten students. The small sections were led by groups of teaching assistants instead of by professors. Although students complained that the teaching assistants were acting like “babysitters”, the larger classes had more passing students than the smaller classes. Another experiment involved having a class that met once a week and taught the rest of the material through online activities a few times each week. This structure worked well for an introductory psychology course, but should not be applied to every course. This type of learning would not work for courses in which professor-student interaction may be crucial. These experiments are novel ways to ease the transition to larger class sizes. There has been very little research on the effects of large versus small class sizes. Therefore, it is difficult to know exactly what to do in these increasingly common situations. However, it has been found that grades and overall student satisfaction were lower in larger classroom settings. Universities that are facing these problems, such as Cornell, will need to continue to experiment with various class sizes to determine the best way to accommodate students in the growing academic realm.

Original Author: Rachel Rabinowitz