Large class sizes still an issue

Class size continues to be a substantial part of the spotlight on curricular affairs at Williams. For the past several years, overenrolled classes have been a major concern of students, who continue to be frustrated with unusually large and overextended departments. While class sizes have begun on average to decrease once more, students and faculty alike continue to have concerns and frustrations with class enrollment.

This fall, approximately 60 percent of the 371 class sections at the College enrolled fewer than 20 students. Around six percent of sections enrolled 50 or more students. Mid-range classes in the 30 to 50 student range enrolled approximately 14.1 percent. The average section size is 22 students. The median class size is smaller at 17.1 students.

“There is a good deal of stability in the numbers for Williams, especially in the percent of lower enrollment classes and upper enrollment classes,” Assistant Provost and Director of Institutional Research Richard Myers said.

The number of sections over 20 has been increasing over the past few years from 202 in fall 1997 to 216 in 1998, and 222 this fall. The number of larger classes, sections of 50 and over, decreased from 26 classes fall 1998 to 22 sections this autumn.

“We’re really talking about small differences here, but the direction of the differences looks pretty good to us,” Myers said.

But some discontentment over class size exists, particularly in the nebulous area of mid-range sized classes in the 100 and 200 course number levels, which can be either lecture or discussion based or both.

“Class size is a frustrating topic for students,” Max Weinstein’00, a member of the Committee for Educational Policy (CEP), said. “Students get into a class that they hope is going to be small and relatively intimate. It turns out not to be; a seminar turns into a lecture. The faculty member who’s teaching the class hadn’t prepared for a lecture. They had prepared for a seminar and hadn’t expected such an increase, but for various reasons, they haven’t capped the course. So they’re not quite prepared to teach it, expectations are disappointed, the proficiency of our teaching goes down and everyone is miserable.”

Students seem concerned about the size of classes that fall into this mid-range netherworld.

“I wish my English class were a little smaller,” Kristina Weyer ’03 said. “One of the reasons I took a 100 level over a 200 was that I heard they were trying to make the 100 levels smaller than 200. If my [approximately 45 student] class were broken down into two sections, I think that would be ideal.” After larger introductory level classes, students feel that as they go up the levels in a department into the 300 and 400 level courses, classes become much smaller and intimate.

“Part of the student concern has to do with the difference between expectations and reality,” said Michael Brown, chair of the CEP and James A. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology.

Student course surveys, evaluations students fill out after taking a class paint a level picture, but reinforce students’ annoyance with borderline discussion-lecture classes. For last year’s survey, the figures on “Quality of Instruction” are nearly consistent across the board, ranging from 5.22 out of seven for large classes (40-50 students) to 5.41 for very large classes (51 or more students). The figures for “Educational Value” range from 5.08 for large classes (40-50 students) to 5.32 for small classes (20 or fewer students). Slight differences exist, emphasizing a bit of dissatisfaction with 40-50 student classes, but overall, the ratings are fairly balanced.

“We’re seeing virtually no difference at all in those ratings,” Myers said. “We don’t see an environment where students are telling us that the value or the quality of instruction of those very large courses is tailing off.”

Although students are upset about the number of people in the mid-range size courses, not every class is a disappointment.

“I expected that some of the 101 classes would be larger, and that is exactly the situation,” Karl Remsen ’03 said. “I came to Williams partly because I knew the classes would not be very large. I looked at MIT, a school where the first two years are spent in classes taught by TAs and [enroll] a huge amount of students, much worse than anything here at Williams.”

Popular departments and courses cause some of the glut of overenrollment. Psychology, economics and biology are popular areas of study and experience extra-large sections.

“Many students want to take psychology courses, and many of our courses are larger than ideal,” Professor of Psychology Al Goethals said. “There’s a balance that needs to be struck between optimal size and giving students their preferred choices.”

Popular classes such as Art History 101-102, Economics 101 and Psychology 101 have also had enrollment crunches.

Remedies for overenrolled classes and departments are varied and difficult to agree upon. Swift fluctuations in popular departments make hiring more professors a nonviable solution.

“There is some gap between student request and faculty availability,” Brown said. “I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve seen student preferences change dramatically…You can’t just fire all the anthropologists just because psych students want some professors so they can have smaller sections.”

Other ideas have been proposed including a more structured course sequence with prerequisites, stricter grading policies, shifting enrollments to smaller, less crowded departments, a student review board that evaluates problem departments each semester and capping smaller classes to prevent them from becoming too large.

The issue over class size emerged partially due to Williams’s low ratings for proportions of classes fewer than 20 and over 50 in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” edition. The scrutiny of the U.S. News rankings brought about a series of analyses and investigation into class size at the College. In 1998, the student members of the CEP brought forth an initiative at the first meeting to investigate class size.

The change in leadership of the College could cause some changes in policy on class size. “[With] the new president, there will probably be a new dean and a new dean of the faculty,” Weinstein said. “[They] will be able to shape policy in radically new and different ways than the current dean. There is an impression among the faculty that these things change from dean to dean…everyone is sort of holding their breaths to see what happens with the new president.”