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Does class size affect learning efficiency?

Stephanie Namkoong, Features Editor

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Hundreds of students sit quietly in a dark auditorium as a professor lectures in front of a board until class is over. Through these preconceived ideas of what “college learning” really is, students tend to enter into college with certain expectations or concerns. However, in reality, a class at the college level could end up being five students or five hundred. There is no true pattern to how the college classroom evolves or why it is set up the way it is.

“Both types of classrooms happen at big universities and small liberal arts colleges,” said Jennifer Cromley, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Students commented that both environments happen in most universities, and smaller courses seem to be more dedicated since it is based on the major and begins to get into the subject. There are probably some exceptions though.”

As students progress through college, classes become tailored towards the major the student has committed to and tends to become smaller, but not always. Even then, class size may not be what determines an optimal learning environment.

“A good learning environment should include hands on and practical application of ideas as well as reflection on those ideas,” said Susanna Calkins, Associate Director of Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching at Northwestern University. “I think some students naturally think of attending school as a process of passively taking in information instead of being actively engaged.  I’m not trying to categorize, but many students think they can hide [in big class sizes,] so some deliberately choose to be part of a pack, and that’s just their choice.”

According to Cromley, there are no specific types of learners who excel through different styles like auditory or visually alone. A “good” classroom would incorporate all aspects of learning. However, according to college counselor Susan Biemeret, there are different types of students who would benefit from the different college environments.

“[College career center]  talks about fit a lot, and that goes beyond the classroom,” Biemeret said. “If you’re a kid who likes to get involved, a small school might be good for you. If you like to go places, maybe a big school is good for you. Some kids like to be anonymous, and some find it comfortable to walk down the road and see the same faces every day. I don’t think there’s a good or bad. It’s really just what fits the individual student.”

However, the introductory courses are often set in large lecture halls, and while it may be financially wiser to teach beginner courses in this setting, it has its negatives. According to Cromley, even when the professor gives time to ask questions at the end, it’s hard to put one’s hand up. In big lecture settings, the student is calling attention to himself and they feel like it’s hard to ask question. For the professor, it’s hard to get rich discussions started because it’s hard when no one is willing to talk.

“It’s kind of impersonal with the students around you,” Cromley said. “Some students get to college surrounded by high school peers or kids they don’t know at all. If you look around and don’t know anyone, it’s intimidating.”

Often times, students who wish to develop deeper relationships with the teachers go to the small schools, and the students who want extra opportunities go to the big ones. Some people who are excited about meeting different kinds of people and have the opportunity to try out a lot of different classes may seek out the big school. Cromley said it depends on the student’s perspective of opportunity, whether it’s trying new things or investing more in the extracirriculars he or she is involved in.

“Just generally, anybody who is picking a school should visit and sit in on classes and ask themselves if that’s the kind of course that’s good for them and their own learning,” Calkins said. “Even big schools may contain colleges that seem small, so keeping one’s mind open and seeing that different types of schools may be different than one think.”

Freshman year of college can be a frustrating time. According to Cromley, there are so many things going on for freshmen students, not just having to be away from home but experiencing life away from home. Cromley speculates that the real reason why it’s so tough and why the students reflect negatively on their year is because it is a generally difficult time.

While class size is a part of college learning, it is not the only thing to consider. The environment set by the professor is what matters most towards the most efficient and effective learning situation for students.

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Does class size affect learning efficiency?