Monday, June 1, 2009

How big is too big?

It appears budget cuts are going to plague the state university system in which I teach for several years to come. In such a climate, many ugly options are considered, including one that I find somewhat controversial: increasing class sizes.

It's taken as conventional wisdom that larger class sizes are a bad idea, whether we talking about kindergarten or college calculus. I sometimes wonder how big a determinant of student learning class size really is though. Place a large number of highly motivated and talented students in a classroom with a motivated and talented instructor and plenty of learning will happen. And I think we can agree that there's a certain limit to the number of students that can be in a room and still achieve a friendly or collegial enough atmosphere for serious discussion. But I wonder how far this goes. Is 100 worse than 50, in a philosophy lecture class, say? Is 300 worse than 100?

But the real problem with large class sizes is, of course, us. And by that I mean that large classes mean more of the most demanding and time-intensive, but often least rewarding, work of teaching: grading, etc. Large class sizes ultimately make for tired teachers, and tired teachers are not especially motivated or energetic. This of course is a hard argument to push in any real life context, since it suggests that we instructors have limits and are not superhuman.

Yet the question still strikes me as a good one: To what extent is class size an impediment to learning, especially in philosophy?


  1. Enlarging our already over-sized classrooms would be a disaster.

    We need to increase the number of tenure-track positions and decrease class-size.

    And not just because that is treating our Professors more justly. It makes economic sense. Having smaller classes and more good tenured professors leads to more retention of students.

    This is very sound economic policy for universities if you ask me.

  2. Here's where class size is important for me. I currently have approximately 100-105 students per term (spread among three classes, and usually two preps). As it is, I'm able to make my students do a decent amount of writing: usually 2 5-page papers and regular writing responses in my lower division classes, and approximately 25-35 pages in my upper division courses. (I have no TAs, and no opportunity for them at my current institution.) On all of this, I give pretty extensive feedback and expect improvement on later papers in light of the earlier. But the marking these papers require is about all I can manage during the term. If I were to have even 20 more students per term, I'd move away from the amount of writing I require my students to do. Insofar as writing, and writing well (which also requires reading well), is one thing that I think is an important skill for students in my classes to learn, I think they'd be ill-served by even a modest increase in class size.

    A few semesters, I've been fortunate enough to have only 20 students in a course instead of 30-35, and I'm able to devote a far greater amount of time to helping students with their writing.

  3. Our sections of Ethics, Intro to Philosophy and World Religions are 50 students while logic is capped at 40 and Biomedical Ethics at 30 (yes -- it's really weird to have Ethics = 50 and Bioethics =30 -- but it wasn't my decision..).

    Without a TA I generally have about 180-200 students per semester. Giving meaningful feedback on writing is quite a challenge. Many folks in our department have moved to objective exams with short essay questions and rarely read drafts. I haven't done that yet -- but I'm planning to do so next semester when I'll have 240 students.

    The way to argue against increasing class sizes is to point to the value of writing across the curriculum. Sections of 30 students permit you to assign and give meaningful feedback on papers. You can have individual conferences with students to discuss their work. You can read drafts and give helpful feedback. With 40-50 in a section, this becomes nearly impossible.

    In essence, you need to argue that if the only discipline with small classes ends up to be English, then the English department will have full responsibility for teaching writing. Since the main complaint of employers about recent college grads is that they lack written communication skills, making any moves that decrease the amount of writing required would also decrease the range of skills your graduates will possess, thus decreasing their abilities to get jobs.

  4. Does anybody know of good reports documenting the relationship between class size and student learning? I know at least one administrator who constantly claims that there is "no discernible difference" in student learning as class sizes increase. He hasn't presented our campus with any evidence. And nearly every faculty members experience says otherwise, but right now it's a case of "he said...they said."

  5. Increasing class size doesn't make a difference to discussion once you get past 30 or so. But it makes a big difference to student learning.

    With 30 students, you have a decent chance of getting everyone to make at least one contribution in a 60-75 minute class period, and you can notice when one or two look bored, distracted or confused and try to re-engage them. But things go seriously downhill from there. And once you have less than two minutes or so per student, you pretty much have to give up on guided discussion. At that point, it doesn't much matter if you have 50 students or've got to mostly lecture in the classroom (talk to them instead of discussion with them).

    Smart cooperative learning techniques can help to keep everyone involved in a large lecture. But again, as size goes up, the amount of time it takes to organize the class into small groups and have them report out becomes too high and takes too much time away from instructor guidance.

    Clickers are nother option. That keeps students fairly engaged, but deprives them of the individualized feedback and examples of following an argument where it leads that is so desperately needed in a philosophy course. When combined with the need to reduce written work that is well documented on this page already, student learning about how to do philosophy (which should be distinguished from learning about or memorizing a list of weird ideas famous philosophers have thought and defended) inevitably suffers.


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