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To be completely honest, I was excited to attend lecture when I first enrolled in university. Setting foot on campus was like walking through the gates of Fantasyland. Suzzallo Library certainly could’ve been the Sleeping Beauty castle of the University of Washington, with its beautiful gothic architecture. I couldn’t wait to attend class every day and to leave having learned as much as I possibly could. It was like getting in line for a ride at an amusement park, only I could ride it whenever I wanted throughout the next four years.

My enthusiasm lasted maybe a quarter.

By the time I was halfway through my first introductory biology course, I found the class structure more draining than the content itself. Finding a seat every day was a struggle. You can’t pick a seat next to someone else, because it’d be rude to sit right next to them when there are plenty of other seats open towards the sides, but you can’t see as well from the peripherals of the hall either. And once you’ve found your seat, you have to hike up stairs and prance over backpacks and water bottles just to get to it. Getting out is the same ordeal, only it takes a few minutes longer and the two exits are clogged with hundreds of waddling students.

Why is the giant lecture such a staple of the American college experience? My biology course at the University of Washington was held in Kane 130—a room with a maximum occupancy of over 700 students. Even my friends at other universities have the same ordeal, only with a slightly lower student-to-instructor ratio.

First, let’s agree that large classes really do exist at most colleges. Take the Ivy League, for example: the supposed pinnacle of higher education in the U.S. Their small class size is one factor that contributes to other’s perceived excellence of these schools—and it’s a fact they’re quite proud of, too. More than half the classes offered at Harvard each semester enroll twelve or fewer students; 80% of undergraduate classes taught at Columbia have fewer than twenty students. The statistics are right on their admissions pages.

Yet even these schools concede that this isn’t always the case. The Harvard FAQ admits that some introductory courses and other popular courses do have “large” enrollments. And the 20% of courses at Columbia larger than twenty students are generally popular introductory lectures or highly-demanded upper-level classes. Small universities also continue to offer classes with disproportionally high enrollments. 26% of the classes offered to undergraduates at Amherst College have more than thirty students even though the college only enrolls 1,850 undergraduates. And at Bryn Mawr College, where the total undergraduate enrollment was only 1,300 in 2015, 4% of classes still enrolled fifty students or more.

If these institutions can’t maintain a uniformly small class size, what about more constrained universities? Well, PSYCH 210 is the most requested class at the University of Washington, by word of mouth. It doesn’t sound too enticing—students discuss “The Diversity of Human Sexuality.” But I’ve heard you watch porn every other lecture, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me. And for the spring of 2019, PSYCH 210 had the capacity to enroll up to an outrageous 720 students. With two days still left in the registration period, the class had already reached maximum capacity.

I suppose watching porn in a room of 700-some people isn’t all that bad. But what if the subject wasn’t so lighthearted? What if you were trying to make sense of, say, multivariable calculus alone in a dark sea of 700 people? No matter how many questions you have, the professor is always moving too quickly. And as soon as the bell rings, you see her walk out the door as you attempt to swim against the current of 700 students.

In some cases, the numbers make learning impossible. The University of Colorado offered 33 courses with over 400 students in 2007. And in the same year, there were three classes at the University with over 1,200 students.

1,200 students.

Can you even begin to imagine that? 1,200 people is enough to fill almost three Boeing-747s. Taking notes in one Boeing 747 seems difficult enough. At the University of Colorado, instructors resort to holding final exams at their home basketball arena, the Coors Event Center, just to accommodate the massive number of students.  

Perhaps the most obvious reason these giant lectures are so common is that the demand for some classes is greater than that of others. This is especially the case for introductory-level courses (and courses where you get to analyze porn for credit). It’s much more convenient to consolidate what would be smaller sections into one big lecture, simply from a logistical perspective. More classes create more conflicts when constructing the university time schedule and require much more coordination between sections. Of course, the most glaring limiting factor is the amount of resources available to each university. Teachers are expensive. And good teachers are hard to find.   

But that being said, the massive lecture does have its advantages. A bigger class lets more students learn from the best instructors. And small additions in class size can have significant implications for the quality of education a school can maintain. Success Academy Charter School, an academically renowned school in New York City, can equip every fifth grade classroom with a SmartBoard and every fifth grade student with a laptop and Kindle by adding a single student to each class.

Psychologically, being one student in a room of many encourages independence. I am the hero of my own education—there is no teacher or parent patrolling the desks to make sure I stay on task. I will remain attentive no matter what boring information lecture may throw at me. Having a less accessible instructors only encourages me to be proactive and seek answers out on my own time. And when it comes down to the age-old question of whether or not I should even go to class, I’m expected to make a responsible decision.

But trying to learn without an instructor isn’t Disneyland.

 

No matter how you look at it, 1,200 is a huge number of people. Imagine a carton of a dozen eggs. Now picture 100 cartons. Now imagine every egg was a person. That’s how many peers some students are forced to study with.

In reality, no one can learn well among so many people, no matter how good the instructor may be. Even the most enthusiastic theme park goer would think “It’s a Small World” is hell after riding it for four years. So would the most dedicated college student after four years of lecture.

Lectures rarely allow students to engage with the content at a comprehensive depth. Instead, students are expected to sit and receive whatever is on the menu that day. The lecture hall is a perfect visual metaphor: students have no room to move, both physically and mentally. Most, if any interaction is done by reporting answers to questions on some form of “clicker” or by discussing questions with your surrounding peers. There are no benefits to this system: even if you are fortunate enough to be sitting next to a friend, the side-by-side lecture seats inhibit thoughtful discussion. And most times, clickers and polling devices are more of a distraction than they are a learning tool. God forbid your polling device be a smartphone; you might as well spend all of lecture surfing the web.

And students aren’t the only casualties of an increased class size. Teaching assistants have more work to grade in less time and fewer opportunities to interact with their students as time and energy is devoted to teaching more classes. Oftentimes, this comes at the cost of quality feedback. Instructors attempt to relieve this pressure by changing assignments to ones easier to grade, such as multiple choice questions, or even by reducing the number of assignments overall. But students know these aren’t as effective in testing their learning.

In nearly every aspect of the educational experience, quantity comes at the cost of quality. This might be why it’s an almost universal fact that students don’t learn as well in large classes as they do in smaller ones. Researchers from Stanford and Harvard University found that an increase in college class size could potentially lead to higher dropout rates and delayed degree completion. Even in K-12, data from standardized testing illustrates that students in smaller classes gained the equivalent of about 3 months more schooling than those in regular classes. With this obvious conclusion, shouldn’t universities should strive to maintain smaller class sizes?

The truth is that most colleges cannot afford to. From 2000 to 2016, undergraduate enrollment in the United States increased by 28% from 13.2 million students to 16.9 million. And by 2027, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 17.4 million. This reveals another concern: that the demand for a college education is increasing. The Georgetown Public Policy Institute projects that 65% of all jobs in the economy will require education and training beyond that of high school by 2020. Of the projected job openings in 2020, 35% will require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. And in examining data since 1960, researchers have found that the yearly mortality rates of highly educated adults are lower than that of their less-educated peers in every demographic subgroup of the population. A college education can mean the difference between life and death.

As more students continue to enroll, colleges are pressured into an unhealthy feedback cycle. Colleges need more resources to accommodate a growing number of students, but doing so necessitates attracting more students so that the college gains access to more resources. And to attract more students, colleges need to maintain relevance by making regular contributions to academia—which requires even more resources.

But if I’m paying thousands of dollars a year for an education, I expect to be educated—not shoved in a room with 1,200 other students. Shareholders anticipate a return of investment when they purchase shares in a company. Investing in a college education is the same thing. Ensuring a quality experience is the least a college can do for students that have few other choices but to enroll given the current economy. And a beneficial place we can start is through maintaining smaller classes.

Maybe the underlying take-away from all this is that universities lack the resources to do their jobs well. If this really is the case, then it’s a sad one indeed. With a college education growing in importance, the inability of schools to provide a good one is depressing. But colleges have more responsibilities than to simply provide an education. The purpose of universities is usually threefold: something along the lines of preserving, creating, and spreading knowledge. But as we’ve seen, any financial advances in any one of these comes at the cost of the others.

I think we need to shake up our priorities a little. Not just by ensuring smaller class sizes, but by shifting our attention towards students. Yes, colleges have an obligation to the academic community and to policy makers. But they also have a duty to the future: to produce the most knowledgeable and mature citizens of the next generation. And they have a promise to the millions of individuals who come to their campuses, seeking nothing more than a means and opportunities to better their livelihoods. For many, college really is “the happiest place on Earth.”

Let’s not let them down.

Grace Zou

Washington '22

Hey there! Grace here! I like science, coffee, and cats!
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