Class size matters

Lyndsey Schley

Massive lecture halls, tiny classrooms and everything in between litter the campus. As one studies in a small group or a large class, one may wonder who or what decided the size.

Class size is a big issue with universities. Many list their average class size on their advertisements. However, the decision making process is complex.

“I don’t think there’s any magical formula that determines what exactly is the right class size,” provost Todd Diacon said. “I think it has to do with the nature of the material being taught. I think it has to do with if it’s introductory material or something much more specialized and then, quite frankly, I think it has to do, especially in this day in age, with budgetary considerations.”

While offering large introductory classes is acceptable, he wants to create a balance for freshman, Diacon said.

“We allow some introductory courses to run in larger numbers, but we want to have teaching assistants to break those down into recitation or lab sections that have far smaller numbers, “ he said. “I strive to balance out that large course experience that freshmen have with something much smaller, First Year Experience and Freshman Composition, typically. I’m mindful of the fact that an incoming freshman might have 200-student courses and we want to balance that out.”

Class sizes over the years

In recent years, average class sizes had little variation on both the Kent and regional campuses, according to data provided by Wayne Schneider, director of Research, Planning and Institutional Effectiveness. The data provided was for Fall 2000, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012 and Spring 2013.

Main Campus Undergraduate:

Largest Average Class Size: 24.5 in 2000

Smallest Average Class Size: 22.1 in Fall 2008.

Current Semester Average Class Size: 22.8.

Regional Campuses Undergraduate:

Largest Average Class Size: 20.2 in Fall 2010

Smallest Average Class Size: 15 in Spring 2013

Current Semester Class Size: 15

Main Campus Graduate:

Largest Average Class Size: 8 in Fall 2012.

Smallest Average Class Size: 5 in Fall 2000 and 2005.

Current Semester Class Size: 7.1

Regional Campuses Graduate:

Due to the small number of graduate level classes at regional campuses, this data was not included.

It is not possible to make all classes small on Kent’s budget, Diacon said.

“Budgetary considerations, whether we like it or not, come into play,” Diacon said. “It’s just not the case that we can afford to let every class run with 11 students or five students or six students. If we do that, that’s just preventing us from spending our resources on classes that have more demand. It’s a delicate balance.”

In his time as a teacher, Diacon taught very writing-intensive upper-division history classes, and he said he understands that classes like those require smaller class sizes.

“I think faculty in those types of writing-intensive courses, for example, need a lot of time to do good grading and advising and follow-up meetings with their students,” Diacon said.

Individual departments also have their own decision-making processes when deciding class sizes.

English Department

The English department started offering 70-student mega sections in recent years, said Robert Sturr, coordinator for English department undergraduate studies.

“We’ve kind of taken baby steps into mega section teaching,” Sturr said.

The College of Arts and Sciences suggested the English department begin to offer some larger class sizes after a change in the university budget system a few years ago, Sturr said. Some classes would regularly have more demand than the usual 35-student section. Due to limitations on new hires, there are areas of need that cannot be met by just small classes. Also, certain lecturers are excellent at lecture-based courses.

However, there are also some drawbacks to larger classes, Sturr said.

“A mega section is almost certainly going to have more rote testing, short answer and multiple choice, and I think all of us as English professors want our students to write in class, no matter what it is,” Sturr said. “Essay writing kind of goes down. There’s just not enough time to grade it.”

The department does provide mega section teachers with a grader to help with the workload, Sturr said.

“In other departments, people have graduate students that lead discussion sections at a different time,” Sturr said.

Following the provost’s initiative to create a “high-touch” environment, all College Writing I and II class sizes will drop to a maximum of 18 or 19 students, Sturr said. Other writing intensive classes will also drop below 20, such as Senior Seminar and Creative Writing.

“Any student entering Kent State University, whether they are an honors student taking their Colloquium, doing College Writing I and II or maybe they need the brush-up course in the stretch, is going to have a class under 20 in the future, at least on the Kent campus,” Sturr said.

Sturr said the faculty generally prefers to teach smaller classes, but they try to give benefits to faculty in exchange for taking on larger class sizes.

“If you ask most of the English faculty, they’d say ‘We’re not crazy about that kind of a lecture driven, big performative type of class,’” Sturr said. “Most of us like small discussion-oriented classes. The people who choose to do mega sections do get better at it. That doesn’t mean that’s their preferred mode, but they are willing to step in. If they do certain mega sections, it’s hard work. We will give them some release time later to do more research, but I think [for] most people, it’s not worth it.”

Chemistry/Bio-Chemistry Department

Maximum class sizes in the chemistry and biochemistry department range from 280 to 14, academic laboratory coordinator Kristen Camputaro said.

The largest classes in the department are General Chemistry I and II, which both can hold up to 280 students, Camputaro said. Camputaro took these classes while she was an undergraduate.

“It’s not that bad,” Camputaro said. “These are generalized classes. Teachers are available afterwards for office hours. Everything’s posted on Vista. If you did have any questions, I would go individually, rather than asking during the class, personally. I think that’s a little bit easier. “

Another lecture hall holds 200 students and has courses such as Introductory Biological Chemistry, Camputaro said. These classes are not always full. For example, as of Feb. 26, an Introductory Biological Chemistry section had 120 students, though there had been withdrawals. Most other classes in the department hold up to 40 students.

Labs can hold anywhere from 25 to 14 students, Camputaro said.

“Most of the classes I feel people really need special attention in are labs just because you’re doing the physical work then,” Camputaro said. “When you’re doing the actual hands on stuff, that’s going to be in the lab.”

General Chemistry I and General Chemistry II also have Supplemental Instruction available, according to the Kent State website. Supplemental Instruction is group tutoring led by students who received an A or A- in the course. The university offers Supplemental Instructional for large courses with a 30 percent or higher D, F and withdrawal rate.

Contact Lyndsey Schley at [email protected].