How big is too big? College weighs in on increased class sizes


Lou Foglia

Stan Wearden, senior vice president and provost, has said increasing the average class size by one student could save the college $1 million a year. The college is also currently exploring larger lecture hall style classes to be implemented in future semesters.

By Campus Editor

Students can expect larger class sizes in some courses offered next semester when fall 2015 registration goes live April 6, as courses with up to a 200-student capacity could be introduced to the curriculum.

According to Dominic Pacyga, a professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, a course of approximately 200 students has been proposed to serve as a replacement for the First-Year Seminar Program, which Stan Wearden, vice president and provost, announced would be eliminated after the current semester.

The course—which will aim to familiarize students with the history, culture and background of Chicago—will feature a large lecture hall-style setting in which around 200 students meet weekly with Pacyga and a teaching assistant as an introduction to the college, Pacyga said.

Wearden said increasing the college’s average class size—which was 16.75 students in the Fall 2014 Semester, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness—by one student could save the institution $1 million per academic year. In response to this, students and faculty have expressed concerns regarding how increased class sizes could impact the college.

“I’ve asked department chairs to take a look at all their course offerings [to determine class sizes],” Wearden said. “Some classes are small just by tradition, but there’s no need for them to be that small. For example, in a lecture class you can lecture 20 people just as easily as you can lecture to 15, so it makes sense to increase the class sizes and reduce the number of sections.” 

Wearden said decreasing the number of offered course sections would save money by lessening the number of adjunct professors necessary.

“[Increasing class sizes] makes better use of our full-time faculty, getting them into our courses and getting them into bigger courses, but also in some cases it could be that we don’t need as many part-time faculty for a given satisfaction,” Wearden said.

Diana Vallera, president of the college’s Part-Time Faculty Union and an adjunct professor in the Photography Department, said some adjuncts have already lost classes because of increased class sizes. Vallera said she worries even more adjuncts will lose work if class sizes continue to increase.

She said she is concerned the administration did not consult faculty or students before increasing class sizes and reducing sections.

“What ought to have happened is the provost should have sat down with us and talked about if they’re having a financial problem and talked about what to do and [if] there should be an increase in class sizes,” Vallera said. “Then there should [have] been a dialogue about how this should serve the students. The most important thing has to be the quality of education.”

Vallera said increasing class sizes could negatively impact the college by requiring adjuncts to do more work but get paid less, limiting the amount of one-on-one attention students can receive from their teachers and causing overcrowding in classrooms.

Nancy Traver, an adjunct professor in the Journalism Department, teaches a writing-intensive course that typically has a cap of 15 students. Traver said she has 16 students in her class this semester, and increasing its size would make it more difficult for her to grade and give feedback on every assignment. Reducing the number of assignments given to students, however, would compromise the quality of their education.

“The only way you get better as a writer is by doing a lot of writing, so I have to give my students a writing assignment every week—it’s crucial,” Traver said. “If I didn’t do that, then they wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth.”

Wearden said class sizes will be increased based on method—classes that are more skills-based will remain smaller, but lecture-style classes will likely increase, he said. Faculty would not receive increases in pay for teaching larger classes, according to Wearden.

“I don’t think [raises for teaching larger classes] would need to happen,” Wearden said. “When I was still teaching a lot, I routinely taught a class of 250 students—I don’t think we will see courses like that here, but I didn’t get paid more for doing that. What you have to do is adjust your pedagogy for the type of class that you’re teaching.”

Lisa Mucci, a sophomore fashion studies major, said several of her classes seem too large and increasing their size would be impractical.

Mucci takes a world religions class with more than 25 students, and for her, that is already too crowded. Mucci said sometimes there is not a chair for the student who arrives last, so they have to take time out of class to find one from another room or share with another student.

“Nobody wants it and it’s bad because you have to get to class early just to get an OK spot because there is no room for anyone,” Mucci said. “You’re crammed in a class and get really claustrophobic. There’s already too many people in the classes now.”

Wearden said the college will be examining the kinds of facilities needed to support its curriculum as part of the Strategic Plan, determining if the college has the space it needs, the kinds of classrooms it needs and whether it needs to renovate any spaces. 

Mucci said one of the reasons she chose to attend Columbia is the college’s smaller class sizes compared to the lecture hall-style classes at larger state universities.

Lia Srykman, a senior at Buffalo Grove High School, will begin attending the college as a theatre major during the Fall 2015 Semester. She said the main reason she chose Columbia was its smaller class sizes.

Srykman attended a private school through sixth grade where her class sizes were typically around 11 students, but then switched to public school where she had to adjust to classes of up to 30 students.

“I had a hard time adjusting because I wasn’t getting that hands-on [attention] and I had to learn things by myself at that point,” Srykman said. “It was really hard adjusting to that, but I personally think that smaller sizes are better in classrooms because of that [one-on-one] time you get with the teacher. Each teacher gets to know each student better and … students can help each other through the learning process.”