Do class sizes really matter?

TORONTO (CUP) — Does the size of a class makes any difference towards the quality of undergraduate learning?

The issue around class size in universities has led to the University of Toronto’s CUPE 3902 union — which represents over 4,000 workers in varying class assistant roles, like teaching assistants and graduate-student teachers — to support a strike if their request for smaller tutorials and labs is not met.

“What we’ve identified is a significant problem at the University of Toronto,” said James Nugent of CUPE 3902. “Tutorial sizes and quality of education are two of our core issues.”

The union voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike on Nov. 30, stating that tutorials need a cap on the number of students in order to stop them from becoming too impersonal and disengaging.

“We have 42 per cent of tutorials [holding] over 50 people, and by no means do we think that 50 is a good number, in terms of tutorial size,” said Nugent, adding that the union considers 20 students in a tutorial is a more reasonable number.

While the union is proposing a soft cap that would add more hours of work time onto a course if the number of students in a tutorial reaches 20, a proposed hard cap would set a limit of 50 students per tutorial.

“You can’t really be calling these things tutorials after that point,” said Nugent.

But there is dispute over whether tutorial and class sizes are the most important factor of a student’s learning experience. A new report recently released by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) states that class size might be less important than a professor who interacts with students and provides active learning methods.

“For better or worse, large classes are here to stay — so by trying to cap sizes of tutorials or cap class sizes, the resource constraints show up in some other way,” said vice-president of research at HEQCO, Ken Norrie.

The HEQCO report finds that professors who interact with students and provides active lessons lead to a deeper level of learning, regardless of how big a class is.

“In general, it’s how you teach, not necessarily the class size,” said Elizabeth Wooster, a University of Toronto higher education PhD student involved in research with class sizes. “It’s the techniques you use in that class or tutorial.”

The HEQCO report focuses on ways that teachers of large undergraduate classes, usually first-year introductory courses, are developing ways of getting students out of the traditional lecture and tutorial format.

“You can also have a small class, ten people, and it could be the most boring seminar that you learned very little from,” said Norrie. “[Alternatively], you can have an instructor with the support of his or her department that’s using technology creatively … [and] you can actually have a very positive productive learning experience.”

Some techniques used to bring a level of interactivity to students, according to Norrie, include webcasts and removing lectures and restructuring a class into tutorials with online lectures.

“The more engaged students are in the class instead of passively taking notes, the more favourable the outcome,” said Norrie. “Class size in and of itself is probably not as significant of a determinant of the experience.”

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