A new report by the Assistant Provost Richard Myers shows that class size is still an issue at Williams.
In the second of two reports to the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), which can be found on the College Council (CC) web page, Myers addresses the current statistics on class size at Williams, trends over the past years and possible solutions for the problem. The CEP asked Myers to study how section sizes have changed over the last four years and what percent of students tend to be in particularly large or small classes.
According to the report, the median class size at Williams has increased from 27 to 29 students and the average section size from 38.8 to 42.8 students between the academic years of 1993-1994 and 1997-1998. The percentage of registrations in smaller classes, under 20 students, has decreased from 34-32 percent, whereas registrations in larger classes, over 35 students, has increased from 36-41 percent.
Myers added, “Examination of the partial year data for fall 1998 suggests that section size continues to increase.”
The report also focused on studying how class size is affected by the year of the student. The average section enrollment was found to be 22, starting from 33 in 100 level course down to 10 in 400-level courses. The median section size for first-year students is 34 and for seniors 24.
Myers noted that sophomores will tend to have larger section sizes than freshmen because of smaller English 101 and introductory foreign language classes which are usually taken freshmen year.
Another way in which the report studied class size was to look at which majors tend to have larger class sections. The more popular majors, biology, economics, chemistry and psychology, have median class sizes near 35, whereas some Division I majors and interdisciplinary majors have a median size near 20.
The large percentage of juniors and seniors enrolling in 100 and 200 level courses is attributed as affecting class size, with the biggest crunch being at the lower levels. About 60 percent of juniors and 50 percent of seniors will enroll in these courses.
Myers explained these numbers by saying, “Such a pattern suggests that upper-class student demand for introductory courses contributes significantly to the higher, and perhaps the growing, enrollment in particular lower division courses.”
One reason why there are more upperclassmen enrolling in lower level courses is that there are fewer students choosing to do independent studies, only 374 in 1997-1998 as opposed to the 456 in 1993-1994.
According to Myers, the problem is not associated with an increase in enrollment, which has only shifted by two percent in the ten years prior to the spring of 1998.
“Freshman enrollments have been somewhat higher in recent years,” said Myers, “perhaps signaling that enrollment will continue at the upper end of this narrow range for the immediate future.”
Myers also said in the report that even though 22 more students were enrolled in 1997-1998 than in 1995-1996, 14 more non-winter study sections were added.
The fifth course option was also not found to be a problem as there has actually been a decline over recent years of the number of students taking advantage of that option.
The report listed several possible solutions to the problem. The first is for the school to make it easier for non-majors to enroll in upper level courses, alleviating some of the enrollment pressures on the lower level courses.
Another possible solution is to lower the enrollment in 200- level courses to make them smaller.
A third solution offered in the report was to raise the enrollment in some 400-level courses from 10 to 15 students, since in some cases this would not affect the academic environment of the course.
CC co-president Will Slocum ’99 said, “As I look back on my four years at Williams, I see class size as one of the biggest issues.”
Presenting data from U.S. News & World Report, Slocum showed that the percentage of courses Williams offers with under 20 students, 58 percent, is much lower than that of rival schools, such as Swarthmore with 74 percent, Amherst with 64 percent and Yale with 77 percent. Even Middlebury, with a student/faculty ration of 10-1, as compared to Williams’ ratio of 9-1, has 73 percent of its classes under 20 students.
Slocum attributes the problem to, “Changing student demands within a fixed faculty structure. Year to year, student desire is far more flexible than staffing.” He did emphasize though, that, “Un-met demand has been constant over the years in departments such as art history.”
For a short term solution, Slocum suggested that, “It is more feasible to reduce the number of students on campus by admitting fewer students, to hire more temporary/visiting professors and to reconfigure course offerings within departments.”
Slocum credits CC, the Committee for Undergraduate Life and a special housing committee for doing a review which will result in fewer students being admitted to the college.
He said that the school is opposed to bringing in more visiting professors because the college emphasis a long term school-professor relationship as more academically beneficial.
Reconfiguring the courses will probably be more beneficial in the long term. Slocum points out that there are many “confused” courses, those between 28 and 50 students which are too large for discussion and unnecessarily small to be lectures. He suggests making classes either under 20 or over 50 students, which while not affecting the student/faculty ratio, would increase the number of discussion courses.
Slocum said that in the long term the college needs to pay attention to changing student demands and adjust the departments accordingly.
George Anthes ’00, a member of CC, said that two of the departments which are most affected are Computer Science (CSCI) and Art Studio (ARTS). He said that CSCI classes, especially intro classes, are too large because there is a high demand for these classes and too few professors to handle it. He also said that there need to be more intro-level studio art classes offered.
Anthes agreed with Slocum that one solution is to admit fewer freshmen to the school. He also suggested that the school hire more professors, “ideally professors on the tenure track.”
“The administration would have us believe that every few years a different department becomes swamped,” said Anthes, “but I think that’s a pretty hollow excuse for not dealing with the issue of class size, especially because I don’t believe problems such as those I’ve mentioned in intro CSCI and ARTS are going to just fade away.”
As a final suggestion, Anthes said that with President Payne resigning, “The school is in the perfect position to begin evaluating its long term policies.”
Bert Leatherman ’00, CC secretary, presented the opinions and suggestions of CC after the February 14 meeting. Leatherman described the solutions which CC has come up with to alleviate the class size issues.
In accordance with Slocum’s suggestion, CC will support making lecture classes larger in order to allow for more discussion oriented courses.
In hopes of creating interest in these lecture courses and taking pressure off some 200-level courses, “we favor the implementation of more survey courses in departments like History where they currently do not exist.”
According to Leatherman, CC will also support the addition of new faculty members. CC will be working with the Committee on Priorities and Resources, the 2010 Committee, and the Presidential Selection Committee to “make it known that expanding the size of the faculty should be an important goal for Williams.”
As a second option, CC will suggest creating the survey courses to these committees.