CEP presents class size report

Last week, the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) presented its report on class size at the faculty and College Council meetings. The report is the product of statistical analysis of enrollment patterns by Assistant Provost Richard Myers and many months of discussion and debate by the CEP. In the report, the CEP clarifies “the College’s perceived problem of class crowding” and recommends solutions. Faculty and students have expressed mixed reactions to the report.

The report begins by acknowledging its limitations. Williams offers its students free choice, and departments respond to student preferences. According to Michael Brown, “the resulting size differences among departments may itself contribute to enrollment problems in ways that are still poorly understood.” As a result, “we have no illusions . . . that any single strategy will solve short-term class-crowding problems.”

With that caveat, Brown launches into consideration of class size. According to Brown, at first glance, Williams does not have a class size problem. “Average class size at Williams, 22.7 students per section, has remained relatively stable in recent years. Moreover, the College still offers a remarkable number of small classes.” In the fall of 1998, for example, 70 percent of classes had fewer than 25 students.

Yet, Brown and the CEP discovered that these were not the most important data. “It turned out that the averages don’t tell you that much,” Brown said. “The question is, what are the patterns in the unevenness?”

Brown and the CEP discovered the patterns in data taken from the student perspective. The most important finding was that “over the past five years a typical Williams student has experienced a significant increase in the size of the classes that he or she attends, from an average section size of 38.8 to 42.8. Over the same period, the median section size has increased from 27 to 29. Perhaps more significantly, registrations in classes under 20 have declined, while registrations in . . . classes . . . with enrollments over 35 have increased.”

Brown highlighted some specific areas of concern. The first is that admissions material misleads incoming students about small class sizes, so students are disappointed.

The second is that some departments are affected more than others. “More typically, the enrollment pressure is felt in courses originally designed to be taught to 25 students; when these suddenly balloon to 35-40, both instructors and students are unhappy.” In other words, the problem is not with courses designed to be lectures but more with courses designed to be discussions that become lectures, and the departments in which this is a common occurrence.

First, second and third year students bear the brunt of the class size problem, with 48 percent of first-years in classes over 35 in comparison with 40 percent five years ago. The class size problem is very real.

“I went into this as a skeptic, but the more I looked, the more I began to think that the students had legitimate concerns,” Brown said.

After delineating the class size issues in the report, Brown discounts hiring more faculty as the solution. Instead, he directs recommendations at several branches of the College. For specific departments, Brown suggests course capping to control enrollments. In addition, departments should consider shifting from “medium-sized classes that have grown unwieldy” to “a small-number of lecture-driven, large-enrollment survey courses.” He contends that “imposition of more rigorous grading standards in overcrowded departments” can decrease enrollment. In addition, Brown challenges under-performing departments to attract more students. Brown and the CEP allocate much of the responsibility for controlling class size to specific departments.

According to the report, the Registrar’s Office can do its part by providing students with current and historical information on class size on SELFREG.

By “develop[ing] promotional materials that more accurately represent the size of classes at Williams,” the Admissions Office can reduce the disparity between student expectation and reality.

Together with the faculty and the Deans, the CEP pledges itself to assisting first-year students find smaller classes.

The College can help by maintaining the flexibility of visiting and part-time faculty positions. Ultimately, according to Brown, the College may need to shape demand by creating more stringent graduation requirements, thus eliminating the ultimate constraints on control of class size.

The CEP report is a thorough explanation of the problems and possible solutions to the issue of class size. As such, it has been well received.

“I think the faculty found the report useful. I think the report did a good job in drawing out the issues,” said Professor of Political Science and member of the CEP George Crane.

“First and foremost, I think everyone was really grateful to the CEP for doing this work because we (College Council) had been pushing them on it,” agreed College Council Co-President Kate Ervin ’99. “We’re just excited that people are trying to consider class size,” she added.

Yet, as student member of the CEP Biniam Gebre ’00 pointed out, the work does not end with the report. “We did the study. We discussed it. Now it’s up to the faculty and students to take it further,” Gebre said.

The CEP itself has no power to implement the recommendations. “The changes as outlined by the CEP report are suggested paths for thinking and action. They need a lot of discussion and planning before anything should be done,” said Dean of the College Peter Murphy.

“It’s very difficult for a committee like this to dictate specific terms. It’s not the Williams style. It’s really a conversation,” explained Professor Brown. “I hope that departments will be talking about these issues as they formulate their plans for next year,” added Brown.

Professors in the Political Science and Math Departments expressed some reservations on that front. “We [the Political Science Department] just changed our curriculum,” said Professor Crane. “I don’t think the report will inspire us to return to those questions. We thoroughly thrashed this out a year ago,” he said.

“I think we thought hard about these issues, and I think we’ve taken a lot of these recommendations already. We do fine, and we have the whole range (of class size),” said Math Professor Richard DeVeaux. “Course capping is not a problem for us,” he said.

“As with most things around here, it will be a small change over a period of time,” added Professor Crane.

Before any changes are made, the College Council plans to represent the student body in responding to the recommendations. “This is an important issue for us to pursue,” said College Council Co-President Elect Bert Leatherman ’00. “We’re going to invite student members of the CEP to meet with us. Just as the CEP issued its final report, I think we’ll issue our final report,” Leatherman added.

The College Council report may include some of the concerns already expressed by members of the College Council.

“The College Council, and the class size sub-committee of the College Council, thought hiring more professors was very important, and that wasn’t one of the CEP recommendations. There was definitely some surprise about that,” commented Ervin.

“I think Williams needs to bite the bullet and hire more professors. . . I think we should err on the side of more professors in the long-run,” agreed Leatherman.

Members of the College Council also took issue with the recommendation to grade harder. “There was a general moan in the College Council about that,” said Ervin.

“They want to make tougher grading, and I question whether that’s why departments are crowded,” agreed Leatherman.

Members of College Council also wondered about the point of the recommendation to the Admissions Office to stop false advertising.

Ervin and Leatherman both said they were surprised by the omission of a limit on the size of the student body. “We’ve been pushing to get lower incoming classes to solve all sorts of problems like housing and class size,” said Ervin.

Dean Murphy indicated that the discussion would remain open to such suggestions. “I would guess that the final plans will be different in many ways from the current form, just because that’s the way it always is,” he said.

Gebre of the CEP expressed hope about the process. “It’s pretty complicated, and we can resolve it, but we have to look at the trade-offs,” he said.

Ultimately, the CEP may help focus the debate.

“If a year or two from now the problems aren’t abating, we will talk about specific, concrete policy changes,” said Professor Brown.

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