At sea in academia: Large class sizes and college freshmen


According to an NBC News story, in 2007, the University of Colorado had 33 classes with more than 400 students. Three of those had more than 1200 students — though these were broken up into sections. In the article, physicist Carl Wieman, who won the Nobel Prize while teaching at Colorado, says large classes are not only impractical but also dangerous. “In a very real way, you’re doing damage with these courses,” he says.

Some professors are academic rock stars whose classes are literally standing room only. But it doesn’t take a scholar to realize that the immediacy and resonance of quality teaching can’t reach the back row of a class of 400. No matter how dazzling a teacher may be, students who do not feel a personal connection simply tune out. Worse, research shows students end up thinking less like professionals after completing these classes than when they started.

Joe Cueso, a psychology professor at Marymount College, explains universities have the unpleasant habit of herding their freshman students into large general education classes. He writes, “For instance, at one nationally recognized university, transcript analyses revealed 55 percent of general education credit hours were earned in classes of 100 or more students and that first-year students and sophomores were disproportionately represented in classes of this size.”

A study by Jack Keil and Peter J. Partell, of Binghamton University found that a student in a class of five has a 2.4 higher chance of receiving an A than a student enrolled in a class of 290. They also found adding 10 students to a class of 10 has a greater negative effect on learning than adding 10 students to a class of 200 students. Students in smaller classes are more likely to return to school than students enrolled in larger classes.

It’s not just about the teeming hordes: University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida, UCF, has the largest population of freshmen of any university in the country: 51,269. Additionally, 17 percent of classes at the University of Central Florida have 50 to 59 students. Seven percent of classes have 100 or more students. About 35.9 percent of students graduate within four years; 61 percent graduate within five years and 67 percent graduate within six years. Additionally 69 percent of students are offered full-time employment within six months of graduating. The average starting salary for graduates is $34,244. The source did not break down the median grade point average for undergraduates.

Strangers in strange lands: Assessing the impact of isolation on academic performance

Keil and Partell’s research proves students perform better in smaller classes. However, as indicated previously, students attending a university that has a large population and offers large classes do not necessarily underperform. In his study, Cueso writes, “Nearly without exception, students who are struggling, or who are dissatisfied with their academic performance are taking nothing but large, introductory courses… they make it possible for any student to become distressingly anonymous.”

For many freshmen, going off to college is their first experience living away from home. This can be a troubling and disorienting experience. Where they may have once been a big fish in a small pond, they now find themselves just one of many. And while it is true large classes make it difficult for students to engage intellectually with the professor or other students; it is the anonymity of sitting in these huge classes which can adversely affect a student’s sense of self. Students often feel that they are just another face in the crowd.

Helping students find themselves

White River Academy is a boarding school for young men ages 12 to 17. Our students come to WRA for a variety of reasons. Most have struggles with substance abuse or a mental health issue. At WRA we provide individual instruction and one-to-one facetime with counselors and teachers. We offer small classes with a one to six teacher to pupil ratio. We complement academics with outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, fishing and community work. Our students also learn the value of hard work. Each student is required to perform 100 hours of community service — not as punishment but as a lesson in civic responsibility and project management. Our boys formulate ideas, compose a team, raise money for project supplies, build and create — each in charge of their own projects.

White River Academy is located at the edge of the monumental Great Basin in Delta, Utah.We offer regimented, competitive and innovative curriculum to set your son up for success in whichever path he chooses hereafter.

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