Welcome to BIG 101
“In this class you will have three multiple choice exams. You will need to read the text book and learn the material from this lecture. If you are having problems, then talk to your assigned TA. You will find your assigned TA on the online course system. Exam one is in four weeks, so let’s begin…”, said some professor in my imaginary past. The reason it’s imaginary is because I don’t remember one thing a professor said to me in my big classes (150+), which included physics, chemistry, computer science, calculus, economics, and linear algebra. Not one useful word.
So, why are my classes large?
Well, you might learn this in economics if you pay attention, but one factor is economies of scale. First, take a look at one of the metrics reported by your university – student to faculty ratio. The main factor here is faculty are paid employees and need to be hired, retained, and compensated – so they cost money. For a university to keep the student to faculty ratio low they can do a number of things:
- Charge a lot for tuition
- Have another revenue source that compensates there professors this for example donations to the endowment
- Higher adjuncts and part-time instructors
- Increase how many courses professors teach
- Have big classes for early introductory courses taught by instructors
So, first beware of the metric student to faculty ratio as an indicator of small classes or an indicator of whether you’ll be on a first name basis with your professors.
By making a class large, a university can bring in significant tuition dollars at the cost of one teacher and some cheap teaching assistants. Then they can let their star research faculty and senior members teach small senior classes. Now, the metric averages to a good number.
Is the quality of learning worse in big classes?
That depends – probably. Introductory courses have been taught for a long time, there are hundreds of textbooks, tested methods, online material, and other related ideas to how to effectively teach a big class. Have we measured to see if there is a difference? We have done many studies, but I would argue from the perspective of large populations of students the overall impact on learning is small. Therefore, the economical benefit is justifiable.
However, you as the individual can not stand for this above argument. Pick the learning environment that is best for you, and you should take a look at actual class sizes at your potential universities to get a true picture of what it will be like for you.