Students cope with large classes

At the beginning of every semester, students invariably face difficulties in arranging their schedules due to course caps, time issues, and other problems. Although there have been worse semesters than this one, according to associate registrar Mary Morrison, there have still occurred the inevitable problems that arise when numerous students register for certain classes, while few sign up for others.

Charles Toomajian, associate dean of student services and registrar of the College, describes registration problems as “no-win situations” because students are either disappointed with the course caps or upset about large class sizes.

Without caps, he says, “the course is not the course they wanted to take” because it becomes too full, impeding class discussion and undermining other benefits of small classes.

Certain courses, such as Art Studio 100, and departments, such as English, are typically quite popular. There are not necessarily always over-enrollment problems, but they are popular courses. This semester, “The Biology of Exercise and Nutrition,” a biology course designed for non-majors, was extremely over-enrolled; approximately 55 students were dropped from the course. As Morrison pointed out, “it varies semester to semester as to where the demand is,” but these are relatively typical situations. Toomajian explained the over-enrollment of the biology course by saying that students often are uncomfortable in science and math courses, and when a course designed for non-majors becomes available, many students see it as a chance to complete the Division III requirement.

The registrar’s office and various departments deal with over-enrollment problems in various ways. For example, professors usually send out recommendations of alternative courses. Also, students often contact the instructors directly to plead their cases. Overall, “there’s a lot of information that goes back and forth,” said Toomajian.

Despite the fact that course caps and other decisions are usually set by specific departments and professors, the registrar’s office sees its share of disgruntled students.

“I’ve seen everything from students being angry to students asking me for advice,” said Morrison.

She continued, “e-mail lends itself to people firing off responses… If they stopped to think they might not have worded it in the same way.” Toomajian echoed her feelings, saying that “being dropped from a course is almost always disappointing and students’ reactions are a result of that.”

Because there is a fixed number of faculty here at Williams, arranging schedules is almost like solving a puzzle. Professors want to teach certain courses at certain times, while students have specific courses in mind as well. “It doesn’t always turn out that everybody’s interests fit into the puzzle,” said Toomajian.

In particular, first-years may not completely understand the various ways in which the scheduling system works. Admissions literature states that the median class size is 17 at Williams, which can give the impression that the majority of classes, even for first-years, will be relatively small. Toomajian explained that “students come not understanding what the first year is going to look like” in regard to class size.

Most introductory courses, such as Psychology 101 or Biology 101, are quite large. In Toomajian’s opinion, there is not much advantage to having smaller introductory courses since the purpose is to convey information and in many cases, there are labs, office hours or conferences which serve to facilitate further discussion. Class size only becomes a problem “if a student uses [large classes] as an excuse to get lost in the crowd,” he said.

Overall, it is key that “the size of the course matches the intent of the course,” said Toomajian. While introductory courses might be quite large, most upper-level courses are smaller, particularly those designed specifically for majors.

Even though there may be problems with the registration system, Morrison pointed out that it has significantly improved over the years. Although current students cannot remember a time before the online registration system, the days of paper registration are not that long ago. At that time, students found out if they had been dropped only the day before the start of classes. Students may not be any happier today when they discover that they have been dropped from a popular course, but the new system is much simpler and provides greater flexibility in changing schedules.