Class, Class, Class: Size Matters

via nyu.edu

NYU students leading campus tours can frequently be heard reassuring prospective or accepted students that class size tends to decrease once students begin taking more upper-division courses. After all, even those who choose to enroll in a university with over 25,000 undergraduates can have qualms about registering for large classes.

While there are plenty of small classes at NYU — the Department of History had over a dozen classes with less than 10 students, even one with two students, last semester according to the Course Evaluation Guide — there are also a number of classes with more students than there are residents in some of the dorms. Approximately 60 percent of NYU classes have 20 or fewer students, while 8 percent have 50 or more students.

Chemistry professor John Halpin said that when a course is either required for or popular among many students, a department must decide between having multiple small classes, each with their own instructor, or one or two instructors each teaching their own, large class.

“If the decision is made to have many sections, taught by multiple instructors, problems arise because no two instructors are alike in terms of teaching quality, treatment of topics, or methods of assessment,” Halpin said. “With one section, if taught by a quality instructor, the drawback is a large class size. The chemistry department chose the second option.”

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According to Halpin, his General Chemistry lecture has approximately 600 students. However, he believes weekly recitations — which typically have less than 25 students — and a series of Peer Tutoring Experiences — which typically have less than 22 students — are high quality “small class” features of the course.

“It’s also worth pointing out that in terms of student evaluations, General Chemistry is consistently the highest rated ‘large’ science lecture course at the university,” Halpin said. “A large lecture format, if done properly, does benefit the students.”

In addition to providing for consistency among students taking the same course, large sections can provide students with more resources. A section may have multiple teaching assistants, as well as dozens or hundreds of students who can benefit from forming large study groups with everyone contributing unique insight.

Despite the merits of large classes, students have expressed displeasure over mandatory attendance at recitations and the physical discomfort of sitting in packed lecture halls. In addition to these mild inconveniences, students like CAS junior Viviana Gonzalez are also concerned with the lack of intimacy in huge lecture halls.

“I actively avoid registering for large classes,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like it takes more work to get to know the professor and classmates.”

Gonzalez finds avoiding large classes to be difficult to accomplish as a politics major, but she was able to enjoy smaller politics classes while studying at NYU’s Washington, D.C. campus.

Stern freshman Lilian Chung believes the anonymity of large classes has major implications for the learning experience.

“There is a less personal connection which can allow students to have the freedom to choose how much they wish to engage in the classroom environment,” Chung said.

She observed there are also downsides to this disconnect, such as professors having less ability to tailor their lessons to students’ needs because they cannot devote as much time and attention toward individual students.

“In a smaller, more intimate setting there can be greater understanding between the professor and the students over how to best utilize class time,” Chung said.

Email Mona Chen at [email protected]

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