Faculty look at large classes

Larger class sizes are a reality for almost every university and Wilfrid Laurier University is no exception. However, WLU is using various strategies to cope, both from a teaching and administrative perspective.

The educational development department at Laurier has launched a community of practice (COP) consisting of staff and faculty from multiple disciplines discussing their experiences with larger classes who will meet every three weeks through the year.

Educational development manager Jeanette McDonald said that it’s impossible to define what a “large” class is, because all professors have experience with different numbers of students. “Fifty students could be large to some faculty,” McDonald explained. “They could be used to teaching ten in a seminar setting. 450 could be large for another person.”

In most cases, “large” was not quantified according to McDonald, who said the stage at which faculty felt their classes were getting large was “when they no longer knew students’ names.”

With every professor experiencing different changes, the COP is a place for them to share those experiences. “[They talk about] different issues or challenges or things that have worked well in a larger class setting,” McDonald said of the discussions.

One practice that educators have tried over the school year has been the Open Classroom Series. The purpose of these observations is for educators to sit in on lectures and observe their colleagues’ methods of teaching in large classes to examine different strategies.

As registrar, Ray Darling deals with feedback related to class sizes. From an administrative standpoint, Darling feels that there were more problems last year – a sign that things may be stabilizing and that Laurier may be adjusting to increased enrolment.

“Some of the courses that we had issues with were… intro to communication studies courses, intro to math courses,” he explained. Darling felt that those two classes were the only major problem areas. “We had a few more last year. English and history were some issues as well last year, but we didn’t hear as much about those.”

Nevertheless, the university has had to deal with several issues concerning final exams, especially for first-year classes.

“Some of the issues we’re having with [introductory psychology classes] are that they’ve switched from a full-year course to a half-year course,” Darling said. “Suddenly there are more final exams in the fall term than there had been in the past.” Darling explained that this has been part of the cause for scheduling final exams on Sundays this semester.

Darling admitted that there has been increased enrolment, but doesn’t see this as a cause for worry. “When we set targets, they’re actually November 1st targets, because we report our students to the government then and we get funding for them.”

Darling observed that between May 28 (the response dates for new applicants) and Nov. 1, WLU loses between 6 and 7 per cent of students, and that the registrar’s office anticipates this drop. “Last fall, it looked like we were hundreds over, and it ended that we were about fifty students over … hopefully that will hold true for this year.”

Darling also does not foresee enrolment increasing in the 2011-2012 year at the Waterloo campus. “Our planned growth is at Brantford from this point forward,” he said.