Profs raise concerns over class sizes

Despite administration releasing no numbers to the Laurier community, class sizes have increased, which is having an effect on both students and professors in the classroom.

Administration has previously stated that this year classes have gone up by approximately five per cent, however, some feel that there is more behind this information.

“[Vice-president: academic] Deb MacLatchy mentioned the other day that on average class sizes have risen by about five per cent, now clearly that five per cent masks considerable variation between different areas in the university,” said Judy Bates, president of Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA).

“Although I have no evidence of this, there are departments in the faculty of arts where class sizes have increased by considerably more than five per cent.”

Bates continued, saying that larger classes impact the student experience in the classroom.

Professors have to make do without tutorial leaders, thus using a different method of teaching and evaluating students. Bates noted that the increase in marking limits the amount of writing assignments a professor can assign to a class.

A student representative on the faculty of arts council, Anatolijs Venovcevs, came forward with information from the council’s latest meeting, saying that the idea of adding desks to classrooms to accommodate more students was being considered before asking administration to add more classes.

When asked about this, the acting dean of arts Mary-Louise Byrne denied knowledge that this idea was ever discussed.

“It’s disappointing, outrageous and really troubling,” said fourth-year archaeology student Venovcevs. “It’s getting to the point where it’s going to be a physical impossibility….Will they defy the fire regulations now, just to cut costs?”

“It’s treating students like cattle, how many can you fit into a barn?”

Professor emeritus and director of the Laurier Center for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) Terry Copp noted that one of the reasons for the increase in class sizes might be the university’s shift in focus from undergraduate studies to the area of graduate studies and research.

“There are costs to such a choice and the costs are borne primarily by the undergraduate students. There is a price to switching the emphasis,” said Copp.

He stated that large lecture classes have their place in any university, and it isn’t that large lectures are bad, it’s that only having large classes is bad.

“The university has to be structured so that classes are smaller as the students progress up the ladder towards a point of specialization and that every student gets a seminar experience in their third and fourth year,” said Copp.

Professor of political science Thomas Hueglin noted that with larger class sizes, you have to substitute individual attention and supervision of students with other mechanisms of teaching.

“I think what the worst part is, it’s false advertising because we still advertise ours as the close-knit community experience and that’s for the most part just not true anymore,” said Hueglin.

Quality of future education questioned

In 2008, Laurier released a new collective agreement both reducing the number of courses that full-time professors are required to teach and increasing the student-to-faculty ratio to 25:1.

This, coupled with cuts in part-time staff, have added to the problematic equation of more students, fewer courses and larger classes.

Full-time professors are now asked to teach four courses in an academic year as opposed to the
previous five, and Copp can even recall a time when professors had six courses to take on.

“What has happened to Laurier in the time that I have been here is that it went from being a primarily undergraduate institution where the course load for full-time professors was six; three per term. It then dropped to five, as graduate courses and more research was demanded of professors,” said Copp.

By reducing the number of courses that professors are teaching, they are left with more time for research and community work; although research involvement is beneficial to the university, it is adding to the problem of there not being enough professors to offer the number of courses that are needed for students.

The deans in each faculty hold the power to increase the number of classes full-time professors
are asked to teach, but this is rarely done as most professors are involved with research and have an increased amount of grading and prep due to the larger classes.

“I can say with 100 per cent certainty that is not the case for anybody in my department. The political science department right now is a very active and a very research-productive department,” said Hueglin about members being asked to take on an increased course load.

With fewer professors available to teach classes, some courses cannot be offered, while others are combining multiple sections into one larger group.

Finally, the new collective agreement has shown an increase in the student-to-faculty ratio from 23:1 to 25:1, despite the hope presented in the prior agreement that it would be reduced.

When the registrar’s office, dean of arts and VP: academic department were asked for student to faculty ratios for each department, The Cord was informed that they are not yet available.

“I think we all would agree that if we could find … a way that economically we could support a lower faculty-to-student ratio I’m all for that, it’s just that the financial structure of the university right now can’t support that,” said MacLatchy.

Bates also explained that because many classes are no longer counted in the determination of this number, such as tutorials, the new ratio conveys a lower student to faculty number than is actually the case.

Proposed solutions

Several faculty and administration members have proposed potential solutions to the class size issue.

“I think that there’s a case to be made that we should be looking at a teaching stream for faculty,” said Laurier president Max Blouw.

“Some faculty members may elect to be judged more heavily on teaching than on research and therefore teach more… than some others who may elect to be judged more on their research contributions.”

The idea of a teaching stream would provide different benchmarks for certain professors who have different strengths. It would allow for some to focus more on research and therefore have reduced course loads, while others could choose to be less involved with research and therefore
take on a higher workload and teach more classes.

In doing this, the university will be able to focus on producing strong research work while providing enough courses to accommodate all students.

Hueglin brought up a similar idea, pointing out that some other universities have adapted something called teaching professorships; positions that allow for professors to teach without being expected to contribute research.

Professors in these positions would be able to take on a higher courseload, as teaching would be their sole focus.

Another proposed solution to compensate for increased class sizes is a re-evaluation of teaching
methods. The idea is to see what is working for students and faculty and what needs to be changed and improved as the university progresses into the future.

“One of the things we need to focus on institutionally is: are students getting the best teaching in
the classroom that they can get regardless of whether it’s a small class or a large class. Are the instructors equipped with the right tools to be the best teachers that they can be, and the other side of that equation are students equipped with the best learning tools?” said MacLatchy.

She suggests looking at what the classroom of the future needs to be, perhaps becoming more technology” oriented as well as expanding beyond the walls of the class and incorporating elements such as posting lectures online as podcasts, allowing students to go back and re-
visit what was discussed in class.

Finally, Copp points to the fact that simply making better use of distance education classes could
help to free up resources and space for smaller classes.

Laurier’s administration needs to examine the focus that is being put on academics and evaluate what they are doing, and what needs to be done differently in the future.

“It really comes down to a question of priority, and the priority has not been, for a period of time, on the undergraduate experience in reference to smaller classes,” concluded Copp.