Posted by Jay Livingston
Bigger isn’t better. In fact, it’s worse, at least when it comes to large classes.
large class sizes and higher student loads are correlated with less critical and analytical thinking, less clarity in class presentations, and lower ratings on the instructor’s ability to stimulate student interestThat’s the main finding of a nicely designed study by James Monks and Robert Schmidt. (pdf of the study is here ; the Inside Higher Ed summary is here) . They looked at student evaluations in nearly 2000 sections of undergraduate business courses at “a private, highly selective university on the east coast” over a 12-year period. Their findings have a clear policy message:
Reducing class sizes and the total number of students that a faculty member is responsible for teaching in a semester will lead to significant improvements in student outcomes.Will that happen?
At the regular meeting of department chairs, the dean passed out a very handsome chart with dozens of columns (it measured about three feet in width) showing various ratios for each department. Mostly, these were ratios of students to faculty – with different breakdowns for, on the student side, majors and course enrollments, and on the faculty side, tenured, untenured, adjunct, and so on.
The message was clear: what resources the university has will flow to departments with a high ratio. If you want more goodies, get more students in your courses.
Back in July, I said that thinking of summer school as “education” was a less useful model than thinking of it as “buying credits.” Students are looking for a bargain – the greatest number of credits for the least expense of time, effort, and money. Things may be different at private, highly selective schools, but here at a public and less selective university, that consumerist model of student demand seems to work for the regular semesters, not just summer school.
Are things different over here on the faculty side, i.e., the supply side ? The highlighted column in the dean’s chart is a measure of “productivity.” And what we are producing is not education, it’s student hours.
Oh yes, we like good teaching. Teaching is part of that triptych, along with Scholarship and Service, that we fill out in all our personnel paperwork. But is it more important the productivity? Here is one way to tell:
In the movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a schoolgirl loses in some school writing competition.* She’s upset, and her mother or some other grown-up tells her that winning isn’t really the important thing. The girl looks up and asks bluntly, “Then why’s that what they give the prizes for?”
Or as Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” said, “Follow the money.”
*I’m working from memory here, and I saw the movie probably twenty years ago. I have neither the movie nor the book at hand, and I can’t find anything useful on the Internet. So I may be wrong about the specifics.