Committee reports attempt to elucidate class size issues

Class size has been a hot topic at Williams for the past few years, but debate over the issue has entered a temporary lull as several key campus committees review a series of reports written about the issue.

Recently the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) issued a document that outlines the ways in which the College manages its faculty staffing. In addition, Assistant to the Provost for Institutional Research Rick Myers has documented his findings regarding class size trends over the last few years for the CEP. Myers’s report, which is now available on the web through the College Council’s (CC) home page, concludes that the main issue concerning class size appears to be the dispersion of class size among departments as well as student demands for particular courses or professors.

Professor of Anthropology Michael Brown, chair of the CEP, explained that the CEP will consider the issue again as soon as the Council and members of the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) have looked at this information.

“Now we’re waiting for student committees to digest this information and formulate specific questions that will determine where this discussion goes from here,” Brown said.

According to Brown, future CEP action will include “meeting with the CUL and College Council subcommittees and perhaps developing specific policy recommendations that will help the College deal with class-size problems where they exist.”

College Council secretary Bert Leatherman ’00 commented that there are currently many discussions taking place between the College Council, CUL and members of the administration.

Leatherman anticipates that the recent reports should further these discussions, and Brown added that he hopes the recent reports will elucidate some of the primary issues surrounding class size.

“Our goal from the beginning has been to find out where there are crowding problems, why they exist, and what can be done about them,” he said. “The CEP has also tried to show students the significant trade-offs that affect this situation.”

Brown cited Myers’s report, which suggested that the Winter Study program contributes to class size problems by diverting a proportion of the faculty away from the regular semesters. The report details how the faculty resources used for Winter Study could potentially be used for regular semester courses. At colleges that have abolished winter sessions, such as Amherst and Wesleyan, the faculty is better able to focus on semester courses. Brown noted, however, that Williams students do not appear interested in getting rid of Winter Study.

Myers’s report, now being considered by CC and CUL members, was presented at a CEP meeting on November 3. The report documents trends and points of concern regarding sections of all non-independent courses offered between the fall of 1993 and the spring of 1998.

Myers found that on the college level, the average section size and distribution of sections has remained constant over the last five years. Average class size has ranged from 22 to 23 students, excluding Winter Study and independent study sections. However, the distribution of the nearly 700 sections offered each semester is not normal, but skewed so that the average is significantly larger than the median section size.

Remaining consistent over the last five years, approximately 70 percent of all class sections have had fewer than 25 students; 84 percent have had fewer than 35 students; and six percent have had 50 students or more. Myers suggests that the consistency of section sizes could be due to increases in one section being offset by decreases in other sections.

In the report, Myers also acknowledges that these college level statistics mask recent trends within academic departments. For instance, Myers found that there is a wide range of average section sizes across academic programs: from an average of six students per section in some disciplines (such as foreign languages) to an average of 50 students in another discipline (such as psychology).

Myers report also addresses recent findings by the registrar that since 1996 an increasing number of classes have reached their enrollment capacities. Myers suggested that increases in the numbers of students taking non-independent study courses which might account in part for the increase in enrollment demands. Finally, the report reveals that the College has increased the proportion of non-lecture sections from 11.3 percent for 1993-94 to 16.3 percent for 1997-98.

At the end of his report, Myers makes some suggestions for possible areas of exploration in the future in order to more accurately assess the extent of the problem. He suggests that the College’s class size trends and statistics be compared to other small liberal arts colleges. He also suggests an investigation into the average class size for particular cohorts of students, for example, first-year students or Division III students.

The report also states that departments with one or more large introductory courses tend to have higher averages than those which, like the foreign language departments, do not have these large introductory courses.

Class section size also varies by course level, with lower level courses tending to average a greater number of students than upper level courses.

“Section size diminishes as one progresses from introductory courses to advanced or major courses,” Myers said. “While we have not yet tested it empirically, I think we will find that the average section size experienced by freshmen is considerably greater than that experienced by juniors and seniors. We will be looking at this issue within the context of student course-taking patterns over the next couple of weeks.”

Perhaps most relevant to the source of recent student concern is the finding that while the means and medians have remained relatively constant over time, certain courses within departments have faced increased enrollment demands in recent semesters. Included in this group are Anthropology 101, Astronomy 101, Political Science 202, and Romance Languages Spanish 101.

“While overall section size has remained stable, there do appear to be several courses, particularly in art history and some of the sciences that have either increased enrollment significantly in recent years or that regularly meet or exceed their enrollment capacities,” Myers said. “While these courses comprise a very small proportion of the courses offered in a given semester, they are likely the source of many of the observations among students that class size is increasing.”

Torie Gorges ’00, a psychology major, said she has had to wait until reaching 300 level psychology courses for classes that approach the college average.

“I have a problem with the fact that there’s a basic idea in the administration that large classes are going to have extra meeting opportunities, such as a lab or conference every other week, but that wasn’t the case in Psych 242 or Psych 252,” she said. Gorges added that it is harder to receive personal attention in a large department.

“With a big department, we don’t have specific advisors,” she said.

Another junior psychology major, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that she has also been disappointed by the class sizes in the psychology department.

“When I came to Williams, I was under the impression that the higher level classes would have significantly smaller numbers of people in them,” she said. “My 300-level psych course does, of course, have fewer people than psych 101 and my 200-level classes, but it’s still more than twice as big as say, my English 101 class. I’m not even sure that if everyone came to class on a particular day, there would be enough seats.”

Al Goethals, chair of the psychology department, a
greed that there are class size problems in his department. “Many of the classes are huge,” he said. “We’d prefer if they were smaller. We try to make some classes like the senior seminars have only about a dozen students. But we have 65 majors this year and 75 majors next year. And we like to keep our psych stats class to about 22. When you put a lot of resources into small classes you get caught.

“We’d like to have more faculty,” he added. “We have been given more, but not nearly enough. I don’t think the College has a clear sense about what it wants to do about class size — which is fine with me. In our department though we let people take the classes they want to take, which leads to big classes.”

Professor of Art History E.J. Johnson said the art department could also use additional faculty. “We’re really understaffed this year,” he said. “There are not enough seminars, and we’ve had complaints about the size of seminars. There are also fields we ought to be covering which we’re not covering.”

Johnson was forced to cap the department’s popular introduction to art history for the first time this year when the enrollment rose to 315 students. Johnson said he was distressed: “I really have problems with putting limits on introductory courses,” he said. “There are people who will graduate without ever having the chance to take the course.”

However, Johnson and the other conference instructors agreed that the sections should not exceed a certain limit. “It was a trade off between students not taking the course and the size of the conference,” he said. “If you’re taking students into a gallery, 19 students plus the professor and T.A. around a tiny sculpture produces a strange dynamic. We all feel that it’s too big.”

The CEP report said the following about faculty hiring: “The College’s current policy is to maintain the faculty at its present size, mainly to contain costs. This means that faculty staffing is a zero-sum game: additions to one program or department require that others be downsized.”

The CEP report also stated that there are three possible remedies to staffing problems: hire additional faculty, impose wide-spread course capping and have more structured curricula to spread students into different classes.

Brown said hiring additional faculty is only effective in the short-term.

“It solves the problem in the short run,” he said. “But five years from now maybe enrollments go down in the department that is experiencing the increase and there is a run up in interest in some other department. There is always a problem of the fit between demand and supply. Just hiring is never going to solve the problem. Even if the College didn’t have a no expansion policy, there would still be short-term problems in specific departments.”

Brown said such limitations have prompted the College to consider the second two alternatives of course capping and a more structured curricula.

“The CEP would like to know whether students would be willing to accept more frequent course capping in exchange for smaller classes,” he said. “It might mean more students would be shut out of classes, but at least if they were accepted they would know that it would be a reasonable number, whatever that might be for a given course.”

“We are also interested to know whether students are interested in a more structured curriculum,” he added. “We haven’t come to any conclusions, but are still gathering information. We are interested in hearing student ideas about ways to make it work better. We all recognize that in some courses and departments there is a class size problem, but it does seem to be pretty localized.”