November 02, 2003

Cheaper by the Dozen

When a dozen faculty members can teach (or is it process?) 7,000 students per semester, that's got to be cheaper than that old-fashioned method that goes under the soon-to-be-antiquated term education:

The latest evidence for the continued erosion in the quality of undergraduate education in the California State University system comes from our southernmost campus -- San Diego State. The administrators there, working in cahoots with their 'instructional design' faculty have come up with a 520 seat 'smart' lecture hall that, according to a recent article by Lisa Petrillo, in the San Diego UnionTribune will allow a dozen San Diego State faculty members to teach some 7,000 students per semester. This giant lecture hall has all the technological 'bells and whistles' that allow students even in the back of the room to see and hear the faculty member. It even has devices that allow the instructor to poll the class on various questions (Dr. Mark H. Shapiro, So Much for Individual Attention!).

Heck, I poll my readers on various question. Maybe I should start charging tuition.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 2, 2003 09:33 PM

well if they want an 'interactive movie theater' which is what i think this transmission system of education becomes, then i guess that's fine and good, don't you? i wonder which 12 of the universities faculty will be teaching there, surely their best faculty, the ones with multi-million dollar grants, no wait they'll have hire behind adjuncts, how efficient...:) late night sarcasm just doesn't carry well in comments.

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at November 2, 2003 10:54 PM

This technology thing is actually rather useful. I have taken classes where in the middle of every lecture, the professor will put up a question and we will answer using our little gizzmos.The results are instantly avaliable.If a certain percentage of people didnt get it correct, he will explain the concepts again. Prety neat.

Posted by: Passing_through at November 3, 2003 12:15 AM

As I've said before, the higher the class enrolment, the less likely the instructor will be able to give adequate student feedback and control for cheating.

So who's really cheating, here???

Posted by: Academy Girl at November 3, 2003 02:20 AM

The one interview I had when I was on the job market where I decided to myself that no matter how desperate I was, I would never take that job if it were offered to me--the chair of a history department at a tertiary state university in a Midwestern state, after boasting that stationary was free ("within reason"), went on to explain that I would have a 4/4 teaching load, all sections of Western Civilization, 400 people per class ("because it's a requirement for graduation", he explained proudly).

My face must have fallen a bit.

"Oh, don't worry," he said. "We use Scan-Tron quizzes to grade the class". "And", he added, "We have standard departmental lectures that we all use".

I was wondering, why not just wheel in a big television screen and show the TV series Civilization? Be a lot more entertaining, and roughly as informative.

There comes a point where this kind of approach is a slow way for higher education to commit suicide, where it represents no more than a publically funded way to defer the entry of some 18-22 year olds into the job market.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at November 3, 2003 07:33 AM

(Though, by the way, I agree that some of the technology is neat and potentially useful--I hadn't thought of using quizzes of that kind just to find out whether everyone understands a key idea or concept--that has potential.)

Posted by: Timothy Burke at November 3, 2003 07:35 AM

This is a problem, but just condeming it won't make it go away.

My department is down 25% in faculty, and the potential for hiring replacement faculty is very low. Most of us are working flat out as is (and if one more administrator says "do more with less" I will strangle them). Our alternatives for smaller class size are 1) limit student enrollment in first year classes 2) reduce the number of upper level courses being taught (which has already happened, and compromises our major) 3) hire adjuncts.

I recognize putting huge classes in place makes it easier for the admin to say "see you don't need all those faculty". But pointing out the problems of this solution elicits nothing but shrugged shoulders and smarmy adminspeak in response. I welcome any good solutions.

Posted by: RZ German at November 3, 2003 07:35 AM

Some of this is driven by people trying to game USN&WR. One of the elements of the ranking system is the number of classes with more than 50 students. If you substitute one 520 seat class for eight 65 seat classes, you've actually improved your ranking: you have seven fewer large classes.

Posted by: jam at November 3, 2003 09:59 AM

This trend is class-size is one of the reasons I'm not at all certain that if adjunct pay is increased substantially, universities will simply quit using as many adjuncts and increase class sizes. The trend in public universities in my field (which has few-or-no adjuncts available because of a tight job market) has been to squeeze as much out of the existing faculty as possible, pulling graduate students into the classroom at earlier and earlier stages, and having everyone teach more and much bigger classes.

That said, I'm glad CSSD is going high-tech with the big rooms. When teaching a large class (my average class size was 400 students), the room can make such an enormous difference. Having a polling technology to see how students are processing the material is a great idea.

Posted by: Matilde at November 3, 2003 12:33 PM

Non-tenured faculty should be paid by the student, not by the course. Period.

Posted by: Academy Girl at November 3, 2003 01:29 PM
Non-tenured faculty should be paid by the student, not by the course.

It worked for Kant, right?

Posted by: ben wolfson at November 3, 2003 02:09 PM

I can see the uses of polling the class, but it just seems so much like an "ask the audience" thing in "Who wants to be a millionaire", I'd be expecting someone to phone a friend next.
Of course, in a class of 650, I'm sure lots of people already are.

Posted by: wolfangel at November 3, 2003 02:41 PM

"It worked for Kant, right?"

It worked for Adam Smith, too.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 3, 2003 03:12 PM


In my experience teaching large classes, one of the greatest challenges is obtaining information about how much your students understand the material.

In a small classroom (which I would consider anything less than 125 students), students do not feel intimidated to ask questions, and you get a lot of feedback during the class how the students are responding to the material. However, when the class size increases it becomes increasingly harder to get students to ask questions, as they become intimidated by the large audience and feel too distanced from the professor.

The polling function would be great for that. In fact, if my university had such a function I can think of a number of ways I would use it to motivate students and get better information about how they are learning. I would prepare exercises for my class that incorporated the material learned during the day and offer incentives for an overall strong response from the class. "If 70% of you get this right, I'll put an extra credit question on the next test (or bring candy to the next class, etc.)."

In a large class, almost anything you can do to make the class more interactive improves the class. I never realized the extent to which I relied on class discussion in teaching until I started teaching in lecture halls (~400 students). If you try to teach a 400 student lecuture hall the way you would teach a class of 45, you will fail. You need to find other ways to get students involved in the material. I'm sure the polling function was suggested by one of UCSDs teaching faculty and it's a great idea.

Larger classes, overall, however? Not such a great idea. I really think the learning experience is much diminished, holding the lecturer constant. However, most universities only put star teaching faculty in the super large classes. If your choice is between an excelent lecturer in a 400 student lecture hall and a poor lecturer in a 50 student classroom, which student will have the best learning experience? I'm not very certain, but my intuition says the 400 are better off.

Posted by: Matilde at November 3, 2003 03:17 PM

Um .... 125 considered small?? Matilda, dear, you've bought into the system way too much! 40 is too many for a truly interactive class. 25 is ok. 18 is great. Anything else is going to be mostly lecture. Great if all we want to do is spoon-feed our students and have them regurgitate info, but hopeless for discussion primary sources, historiography, etc. The insto-assessment tool is nice, but I still support the idea that we are also there to build and be part of a community and provide living, breathing, examples of why education should not be a commodity.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 3, 2003 04:19 PM


125 is not small. But in my experience it is the threshold where you have to substantially adjust your teaching methods to accomdiate the class size.

I don't find a world of difference between a class of twenty and a class of forty. But there is a world of difference in the skills needed to teach 200 instead of 20.

I wouldn't say that I've bought into the system. But in the three years I taught lecture classes of over 400 students I had the highest teaching evaluations in my department, and I won two university-wide teaching awards. So I do think it is possible to be a very effective teacher in the large classroom. But did I get better evaluations and have more fun in smaller classes - you bet.

Posted by: Matilde at November 3, 2003 04:46 PM

Let me suggest a dichotomy between large lectures and *everything else.* Large lecture classes are what they are. Once you've cracked 100, you might as well be giving the class by CB radio. Maybe others would suggest a different magic number, but I think the point holds.

The tipping point argument suggests that lecture classes should be as huge as possible. Just one physical chemistry class for the Eastern seaboard! (I nominate the newly famous Dudley Herschbach!)

Posted by: baa at November 3, 2003 05:12 PM

BAA: I've always suspected what you refer to at the end of your post. My idea, though, was that there would need to be 4 national lecturers per discipline and field -- one for each time-zone.

It's the brave new world of the future, and I think it's probably coming soonerr rather than later.

Posted by: Chris at November 3, 2003 05:55 PM

I disagree that universities put only stars in the 400 student classes. In my department, the 600 student lectures are taught by - you guessed it - adjuncts

Posted by: anon at November 3, 2003 08:55 PM

I think the biggest lecture I was ever in was 150, once, in my first computer science class. I had maybe a half-dozen courses between 70 and 120, and everything else was lower (to a minimum of 5, I think). So I have no clue what a 200 or 400 person lecture would be like.
In all of those lectures, though, there was some student interaction. You could avoid it, if you were careful and lucky, but there was some. Less, of course, than in a smaller classroom.
I can see a lot of ways technology can be used to help in bigger (and smaller) classes, but the polling still strikes me first and foremost as what you do on that game show. Doesn't mean it's not helpful, though.

Posted by: wolfangel at November 3, 2003 10:01 PM

Why bother even having all those students come to a lecture hall? Professors can't entertain questions or get debate going with 500+ students. Isn't this high-tech/large capacity teaching a short step from offering the class on line?

Posted by: Laura at November 3, 2003 11:18 PM

Let's see. When I started teaching around 20 years ago, 25 was a FULL class, unless it was a lab, tutorial, or composition class, in which case 15 was full. Then the creeping up started. Twenty-five went to thirty, then forty, then all the way to 65. Then they broke the sound barrier, and there are no more limits, really. As for labs, tutorials, and composition classes, well let's just say they're certainly not 15 students any more either.

Posted by: Academy Girl at November 4, 2003 03:11 AM

Aren't students really their own best teachers? Certainly many of my colleagues do little in their classes other than have students break into groups and chat among themselves. I think for these bulk, super-savings-size classes you could just put one guy on top of a ladder, give him a loudspeaker, and have him call out different group formations for 45 minutes - as at a square dance.

Posted by: charlotte at November 4, 2003 08:22 AM

I was a TA in a core course at an Ivy League university that had more than 1,200 students. We met in a gigantic arena-style auditorium. There were 40 TAs; the professor never even knew our names. I said "hello" to him once in a hallway, and he looked liked he didn't know me, even though I was teaching two sections of his course. On the other hand, we could do pretty much what we wanted in our sections.

One other anecdote: I was often hired to TA courses in areas in which I had no experience or training. I'm an American literature specialist, and I TA'd courses in modern architecture, contemporary Japanese culture, and French literature. So much for Ivy-League education (it's mostly connections in, connections out), but all the teaching out of my field was excellent prep for being a professor at a small, liberal-arts college. My goal is to teach every course in the humanities curriculum before I retire. And I think that's a good thing for education (mine as well as the students).

Posted by: THB at November 4, 2003 08:54 AM

What I find interesting about this whole thing is that, just as more and more of us are being evaluated and assessed on our "active teaching," the same administrators who judge us are actively gearing our classes to sizes where we have to return to the awful, old-fashioned lecture. I used to know how to do that -- and in some ways, it's easier, just present the information as if reading from an organized book and blame the students if they don't get it. But there are some things you just can't do in history lecture courses -- like analyze primary sources! This is not just another case of institutions failing the students, but of the people at the front of the room being set up willfully for failure!

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 4, 2003 10:45 AM

What he said (#24)! What she said (#22)! Really good points.

Posted by: Academy Girl at November 4, 2003 11:07 AM

I've worked at SDSU since 1992, and based on what I've seen over the years, the Super-Sizer classes will continue UNTIL the retention rates for "at risk," "non-traditional," and/or "disadvantaged" students begin to go down. Once that happens (and I'm quite sure that it will), the administration's reaction will probably be the most interesting aspect of the entire sorry experiment.

Posted by: Terminal_MA at November 4, 2003 02:06 PM

Terminal_MA makes a great point. We often forget that one of the major causes of increasing class sizes are increasing numbers of marginal students who take the same class multiple times.

Parents are highly resistent to pull failing students out of public university and the standards for 'flunking out' are so low that almost any tuition-paying student accepted into the college can enroll in classes. These students are taking an ever greater fraction of the available classroom seats.

Posted by: Matilde at November 4, 2003 02:29 PM

I think its great that they're trying to add some interactivity to a lecture class, though I do have to agree that it almost sounds more like "Who wants to be a Millionare" than a class room. I also love the suggestion of polling and going BACK over material. This would really help in those incredibly warm, summer history lectures that for some reason IST majors are required to attend at my university. Thankfully, we aren't a large public university, we're a mid-sized private and I've yet to see a class with more than 200 students. Actually, I don't even know if any of our lecture halls would hold that.

Matilde: So just because a student bombs a class, even multiple times, they're a failure and should drop out of a school? I have a terrible time with math and having a lecture for advanced calculus with 200 other students and then the "labs" with another 40 students sure doesn't help me learn the material. Hence why I've dropped the class once, and failed it the second time. Am I a marginal student? According to the rest of my classes, not at all. It would help if some of the teachers actually tried to interest the students and get them to think about the material, instead of just memorizing and feeding it to them. Though thats more a problem of the format.

Posted by: Chris at November 4, 2003 04:51 PM

Oh, but it gets better! Assume for a moment that the 500 seat lecture takes the place of five sections that were taught various times during the day (2 sections 3x a week, 1 section 2x a week, 1 section 1x a week). Five sections of a heavy-demand GE course become one Super-Sizer section that meets at noon on m-w-f. That's it. If you can't arrange your schedule accordingly, you're SOL. Better luck next semester.
And if you used to take 18 or even 21 units a semester so you could be one of the few (the VERY few) who graduated in four years, you are also SOL. It will now take you five or maybe even six years to graduate. And since SDSU's four-year graduation rate is already truly deplorable, this is going to cause all manner of hand wringing and teeth gnashing within the administration.
Golly, aren't unintended consequences wonderful?

Posted by: Terminal_MA at November 4, 2003 05:11 PM

I can commiserate with everyone here. I would often have to contend with packed auditoriums of 400+ students when teaching introductory Dutch while a TA in grad school. It's absolutely nuts. We did not have magic wands back then to poll student answers. I just would call on people, ask them to make dialog in small groups, and hope that something would be absorbed. More advanced courses would thankfully get down to 20-30 students (mostly Dutch majors).

Posted by: Garth at November 5, 2003 05:11 PM