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Increasing class sizes

Topics/tags: Grinnell, academia

I’m in the strange situation of being both a Grinnell faculty member and a Grinnell parent. It’s strange in multiple ways. Once in a while, it means that I get accused of being a lawnmower parent [1]. I also hear a very different perspective on Grinnell from my children. I even learn new things [2].

One of the harder roles for me to navigate is my membership in the Grinnell Parents and Families Facebook group. I belong to the group because, as a parent of a Grinnell student and a Grinnell alum, I share interests and concerns with other parents. For example, I really appreciate it when someone posts photos or clips from a Grinnell Singers concert or a Swim and Dive meet. As an insider, I also try to answer some questions; I’m much better at navigating the Grinnell site than most people and I know about some things that others don’t. I do my best to stay away from controversial issues and try not to criticize folks, even those who helicopter even more than I do or that unreasonably criticize some aspect of the College [3].

I’ve also made it a general policy not to muse about the questions and comments that appear in the group. But a parent recently asked a reasonable question that I know many people have, and the question seemed worthwhile to address. Certainly, it’s a question I’d likely ask if I were a parent and my child had been closed out of classes. To paraphrase,

When the demand for a class is higher than the enrollment cap, why don’t they just allow more students into the class?

I’m probably not the best person to answer that question, since I’ve historically allowed my classes to over-enroll by a significant amount [4]. But I’ve also been at Grinnell long enough to understand some of the issues involved. So here goes.

Many classrooms and class structures do not permit larger classes. Our workshop science labs are designed to hold 24 students, along with the faculty member and the class mentor. There is not generally room for more students in such rooms. Most science labs are also less safe with more than the designated number of students. I know that our language departments do their best to adhere to carefully designed recommendations from their professional societies. Our CS classrooms are designed for a cap of 32 students [5]. For discussion-style classes, you’ll find that Discussions feel very different once you get over sixteen or so students [6]. And, as discussion classes get larger, the opportunities for an individual student to contribute decrease. Some classes have multiple challenges to growth; I’ve taken Grinnell’s introduction to studio art; there’s not really room in the studio classrooms for more students and, in my experience, a larger class size would make it impossible for the faculty member to provide each student with the attention they need to be successful.

As that last note suggests, more students per class lead to less attention per student. In part, that means less individual attention in classes like studio art and workshop science. It also means less opportunity to speak in discussion classes. However, the in-class portion of any course is only one part of the teaching and learning that occurs. Students also learn from faculty in office hours, email exchanges, and feedback on their work. More students in a class can mean less time per student, which may mean less feedback or fewer opportunities for individual interactions. Students attend Grinnell for close student-faculty interactions. Larger classes have a negative impact on the quantity and quality of those interactions.

Similarly, additional students create more work for the faculty member. Every class has some fixed amount of work that’s independent of the number of students and some work that depends directly on the number of students. If you’re not willing to compromise on the quality of your grading or your availability, more students require more time. Many faculty members work between 50 and 60 hours a week [7]. I can understand people not wanting to add to that workload. I also know that some faculty members worry about issues of equity as teaching load, at least in terms of numbers of students, does not seem equally distributed across the College. I worry, for example, about a colleague in another division who I see is teaching classes of 25 students, 26 students, and 28 students, placing them far above our institutional average of 18 or so students per class [8,9,10].

Going over caps feels like a bit of a slippery slope. If I can allow one extra student in, can I allow two? If I allow two, can I allow three? At what point does the character of the class change? At what point does the student experience degrade enough that it’s no longer a Grinnell class? Rather than asking these questions each time, we try to choose our caps carefully, trying to pick numbers are appropriate for the material and teaching methodology.

I’ve encountered faculty members whose educational philosophy suggests that over-enrolling should not be necessary. It goes something like this: The particular courses a student takes are less important than the breadth of their education; if they are cut from one course, there’s likely an equally valuable different course that they can take. Cut from Economics? Take Political Science. Cut from Biology? Take Chemistry or Psychology. Cut from Coaching Methods? Take Education. Cut from Studio Art? Take Music. Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand this philosophy, so I may not have expressed it all that well. But I’ve certainly heard something like that philosophy expressed by a variety of faculty and administrators [11]. In addition, it is often the case that you can wait until another semester to take most courses.

For better or for worse, there are also political reasons not to allow classes to over-enroll. Allowing classes to over-enroll can conceal demand. For whatever reason, it appears much easier to argue for another faculty line when you say We had to cut N students from our classes last year than when you say We over-enrolled our classes by N students last year. There are also administrators who take an over-enrolled class as evidence that the course cap is too small, so it sometimes feels like being nice in one instance can lead to long-term harm to the class structure.

In spite of all those reasons, there are some faculty members and even departments who do allow their classes to over-enroll by a few students. Chemistry is one notable example; they do what they can to support students, even if it means larger lecture sections. Of course, since labs can’t generally over-enroll, if a lecture over-enrolls, they seem to ask the Dean to find a way to add an extra lab. And it’s not just Chemistry that tries to be supportive. I also see over-enrolled courses in American Studies/Anthropology, Studio Art, Art History/Classics, Biology, Computer Science, English, French, Mathematics, Music, Physical Education [12], Political Science, Sociology [14], Spanish, and Theatre and Dance,

I’ve written my explanation. Now comes the big question: Should I share this with the Facebook group? I’ll have to think about it.

[1] That is, a helicopter on the ground.

[2] For example, I learned that there are majors at Grinnell that explicitly require more than 32 credits.

[3] The unreasonably is from my perspective.

[4] I believe my records are 41 in CSC 151, which is supposed to be capped at 32, and 30 in CSC 321/22, which is supposed to be capped at 20. I know I taught a much larger than normal section of MAT-115, but it’s far enough in the past that I can’t recall how big it was.

[5] How did I teach 41 in a classroom designed for 32? We added two extra workstations at places that had bad sight lines, and we made some students work in groups of three, rather than two. The classroom felt incredibly over-crowded. I won’t do that again.

[6] It depends on the class. For some classes, discussions are difficult with more than twelve. For some, as many as twenty may be possible.

[7] If we’re lucky.

[8] That’s one of those dangers of being a well-liked faculty member.

[9] Am I being paternalistic in worrying about that? Probably not; I’m not telling them not to do it. Nor am I advocating on their behalf in front of any administrative body. But I know semesters like that can be hard.

[10] I recall that our average class size is 18. But I’m having unexpected difficulty finding that information. I do see that the majority of our classes (2/3) have under twenty students.

[11] My brain recalls a phrase like I’m not worried that students are cut from classes; there are certainly slots available in other interesting classes.

[12] Yoga and Coaching Methods are the ones I noticed.

[14] I think Soc is the winner, with six over-enrolled courses.

Version 1.0 of 2018-12-06.