Large class sizes raise questions
University administrators weigh in on class sizes and evolving teaching methods
What helps students learn?
A 2009 online study asked Queen’s students to answer the question: “Which of the following have been helpful to you in improving your learning?” Below are their answers.
Discussion with other students: 75.8 per cent
Comments on assignments: 70.55 per cent
Results on tests and exams: 60.35 per cent
Questions you asked in class: 33.24 per cent
Discussions with professors or TAs outside of class: 51.02 per cent
Reading the textbook: 65.89 per cent
Group work: 43.15 per cent
Packages of readings: 20.7 per cent
Interactive field studies: 19.24 per cent
Other: 10.79 per cent
—Tom Russell, Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning
According to a recent study, an average first-year class at Queen’s is one of the largest in the country. The Globe and Mail survey asked Canadian university students to estimate their first-year class sizes and found that Queen’s had an average of 341 students per class, second only to McMaster University, which boasted 392 students per class.
“Without a doubt, large classes are an issue at Queen’s,” said Andy Leger, an education developer from Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.
Leger works at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, primarily researching the use of learning technology in lecture. He said he’s found that students aren’t quick to protest densely populated lectures.
“They don’t have to participate if they don’t want to. They don’t even have to go to class if they don’t want to,” Leger said.
Two years ago, eight first-year lectures had more than 400 students registered. Leger said that these numbers will continue to rise.
“The government is saying that we’re going to give more money to universities that take on more students, so we take on more students,” Leger said.
“But we don’t have more professors and we don’t have more TAs, so what do we do? We make the class sizes larger.”
Last semester, a Queen’s geography professor experimented with class size by splitting a 100-level lecture of 180 students into three smaller groups. The professor and two TAs met with groups of 60 students each week, and used online lecture videos to supplement learning.
Leger received provincial government funding to monitor and report on the experiment. He said students seemed more engaged in the smaller groups, but the effects were difficult to quantify.
“Performance in a class is hard to compare,” Leger said. “If literature existed to say that small classes are better for students, we’d have done away with larger ones by now. But it’s a very difficult study to do.”
Each year faculty are evaluated on their teaching, research and service. Leger said that faculty who receive grants or awards for their research score higher on their evaluations. The same can’t be said for those who are given teaching awards.
“There isn’t a lot of incentive for faculty members to change their approach to learning,” he said. “As a faculty member, you’re encouraged to focus on your research and not so much on your teaching.”
Leger added that if this sentiment continues, so will lecture-style classrooms.
Political studies professor Jonathan Rose said that he’s trying to adapt to larger classes.
“[In larger classes] students are unengaged, attention is low and learning is low,” he said. “I don’t want to romanticize it; it’s a problem and we’re trying to figure out how to work with it.”
Rose sits on a committee that’s looking to construct a new teaching facility at the corner of Division and Union streets.
“The reality is classes are going to get larger,” he said. “So the question is, how are we going to deal with it?”
An anonymous donation funded architectural drawings for the building, but only five per cent of the construction budget has been raised so far.
“This new building will respond to the increasingly higher demand for large classes,” Rose said. “More importantly, it responds to innovations in teaching.”
Andrew Ness, associate registrar, said the new building could be a good opportunity for Queen’s to add to its lecture hall inventory.
“Having more room never hurts,” he said, adding that class sizes are a major decision-making factor for prospective students.
Queen’s currently has nine auditoriums which can accommodate bigger class sizes. The largest are Dunning auditorium at a capacity of 425 and Bio Sciences 1101 at 450.
The Registrar’s Office begins collecting course data in February before drawing up a timetable for students to select classes in the summer.
“From where students sit they think ‘Wow, I’ve got big classes’,” Ness said. “But a lot of what drives these classes to be where they are is invisible to students.”
Jo-Anne Brady, University Registrar, said that large class sizes will plateau in number due to availability of teaching space.
“There isn’t an actual objective to reduce class size,” Brady said. “The objective our faculties have is to ensure a positive learning experience.”
Brady said that she doesn’t think there’s a strong relationship between class size and learning.
“There’s an assumption that small classes can have a very positive learning experience and large classes less so,” she said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”