University lacks resources to scale down large lectures, faculty say

Media Credit: Keegan Mullen | Staff Photographer

Faculty who teach introductory courses said smaller classes are more likely to pique students’ interests, but there aren’t enough faculty or funds at GW to provide these courses for every grade level.

As some universities seek to put freshmen in smaller courses to boost engagement, faculty say GW doesn’t have the funds to join them.

Universities – including the College of William and Mary – are breaking away from the “breadth first, depth second” model of putting first-year students in massive introductory lectures and then introducing smaller specialized courses later on, according to an Inside Higher Ed report last month. Faculty who teach introductory courses said smaller classes are more likely to pique students’ interests, but there aren’t enough faculty or funds at GW to provide these courses for every grade level.

Universities trying this format argue giving first-year students the opportunity to focus on real-world applications – as opposed to theoretical topics – gets them more excited for their major, according to the report. Faculty said professors often prefer smaller class size because they can devote more individual attention to students and notice if they are struggling.

Deputy Provost for Academic Affairs Terry Murphy said although some introductory courses are large lectures, others – like foreign language and University Writing – have less than 20 students. She added that officials use scale-up classrooms, which break large classes into smaller groups, as an alternative to large lectures.

Murphy declined to say whether the University would consider hiring more faculty to reduce the size of introductory lectures. She also declined to comment on how specifically the University is helping students who struggle in large lectures, but she said resources are available through Disability Support Services.

“GW is committed to student success, and our DSS office routinely provides our students with the wherewithal to succeed academically regardless of the class size or course format,” she said in an email.

William Burns, a part-time history professor that teaches World History, 1500-Present – a required course for the more than 2,300 history and international affairs majors, said large introductory lecture classes are part of the academic experience at universities like GW, though students aren’t as engaged in these classes because there is little to no discussion.

Burns’ history course has two sessions this spring, with each course enrolling between 150 to 200 students, according to the schedule of classes.

“One of the things about teaching the big lecture classes is that students don’t necessarily come to you. It can be kind of remote,” he said. “If there are 150 students in my class, there are maybe seven or eight of them I have conversations with.”

Lectures of more than 100 students are generally paired with a weekly discussion session with about 25 students, but Burns said even those sections may not be small enough to facilitate small group conversations.

He said large lectures do have value in terms of “teaching hours,” as smaller classes would require more faculty hires. Growth of non-tenure track faculty has outpaced that of tenure-track faculty every year since 2013, and the number of tenure hires – who often teach introductory lectures – has also slowed.

“If you went toward these smaller, more focused classes, you would have to get more teachers to teach them,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to be the direction GW is going.”

Hugh Agnew, a professor of history and international affairs, said introductory lectures provide foundational information needed for more advanced courses, but most professors in large lectures lack “genuine intellectual exchange” with their students.

“There is, to be honest, a sort of impersonal ‘performance’ side to a large lecture class,” he said.

Economics is a department known for its large introductory lectures, as nearly 2,800 international affairs, economics or finance majors are required to take both Principles of Economics I and Principles of Economics II.

Pao-Lin Tien, an assistant economics professor and the director of undergraduate studies, is teaching both Principles of Economics I sessions this spring, with 125 and 179 students, respectively. Tien said the resources required to have smaller courses at all grade levels would force the University to charge students more to attend.

“Are you willing to pay $3,000 more in tuition to move to a smaller class, or would you rather stay in the big lecture and pay $3,000 less? Most hands would vote for paying less,” she said.

Irene Foster, an associate professor of economics, is teaching both sessions – each with more than 220 students – of Introduction to Macroeconomics. Some students struggle with the size of her lectures because they find it uncomfortable to have a discussion in front of such a large group, she said.

“We need more full-time faculty, that’s the issue,” she said. “Every single class is packed to the hilt.”

Ed Wingenbach, a politics and government professor and vice president dean of faculty at Ripon College in Wisconsin, said feedback for general education courses – which have been reduced from about 40 to 20 students in recent years – has been positive.

Wingenbach said smaller class sizes allow students to develop mentor relationships with faculty – something unlikely to happen in a large lecture.

“If first-year students are in small seminars, we are more likely to notice when they begin to struggle or to develop other problems, and can intervene directly and immediately,” he said.

Nimue Washburn contributed to reporting.

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