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ISSUE 121 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/7/2008

Class sizes create challenges

By Bridget Dinter
Executive Editor

Friday, March 7, 2008

When choosing a college, one factor that many applicants take into consideration is class size. Smaller class size is generally thought of as an advantage, which tends to create a more personal environment with greater attention on the individual. Smaller classes are believed to create a better classroom experience. As St. Olaf's pool of applicants increases, it seems inevitable that incoming class sizes will increase as well. A larger inflow of students may create a corresponding growth in individual classroom sizes.

Research data regarding class sizes demonstrates fluctuations in size have not been as big as many believe. There has been a dramatic increase in applicants to St. Olaf (almost doubling from 2,311 in 1997 to 4,058 in the past year), but first-year class sizes over the past 10 years have remained fairly stable.

St. Olaf has seen an increase in the size of its total student population, from 2,975 in 1997-98 to 3,040 currently. Furthermore, the college has seen a slight decrease in full-time faculty from 215 members in 1997 to the current number of 197. There was also an increase of 15 part-time members to the faculty throughout the same time period.

When interviewing three different department professors, all of them came to the same conclusion: Class size affects the way in which a class should be taught. As assistant professor of psychology Gary Muir pointed out, "You have to treat a larger class differently than a smaller one simply because you have different constraints." 

The constraints faced by a large classroom environment seem fairly evident to these professors. Larger classes require more effort to ensure that everyone is involved with the class. Muir, who instructs an introductory psychology course with more than 100 students, has experience in teaching larger classes.

When asked about adjustments in teaching style for larger classes, Muir acknowledged that different class sizes create a different classroom environment, but also thinks that it is possible to find ways to create a more personal environment. "I try hard to engage the students in class as much as possible by varying the content of the lecture through the use of short video clips, interactive demonstrations and the like," he said.

Professor of philosophy Charles Taliaferro reiterated this sentiment when asked of the difficulties of teaching larger classes. He has background in teaching to large groups, since some of his classes this fall exceeded 50 students. Taliaferro does not think that large class sizes are a problem as long as a professor is willing to spend the extra effort to engage the students. He admitted that teaching to a larger group required greater effort to guarantee that every student was involved, but added that this does not necessarily create a less favorable learning environment.

Taliaferro recalled that one of his most successful classes in terms of course evaluations was a class of 42 students. The important thing about this class was its inner dynamic. Taliaferro believes that classroom dynamics combined with extra effort by the professor can create a large classroom environment experience which is equal to that of a small class.

It is also important to remember that small class sizes can create problems as well. It all depends upon the purpose of the class. Muir remarked, "Some kinds of training are ideally suited for one-on-one interactions, while in other situations students gain immensely through class discussion and interaction with their peers." 

Professor of economics David Schodt reiterated this thought by pointing out that small class sizes are not always conducive to discussion either because they contain a smaller pool of thoughts and opinions.

St. Olaf class sizes have been increasing at a slow but steady rate. Larger class sizes alter the environment of the classroom, but don't have to lessen anyone's educational experience. Professors are aware of the differences between the format of a large class and that of a small class, and they are also aware of how to best teach in each environment.

When considering the effectiveness of a class concerning size, there are other important factors to take into account as well. These include classroom dynamics, material being taught, and the manner in which the professor approaches the lesson. Even with growing class sizes students are easily able to obtain the personal feel and educational experience that they desire.

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