The impact of larger class sizes
Despite MacLean’s magazine’s ranking of Laurier as fourth in the nation overall among primarily undergraduate universities, there is a lingering issue oncampus with regards to increased class sizes that may detract from the school’s reputation.
Since the last academic year, Laurier’s student population has grown eight per cent; since the year 2000, enrolment has almost doubled from 7,952 to nearly 15,000 students.
This increase has implications for every aspect of the university; the more adverse effects include increased class size and an overall change in Laurier’s academic environment.
As a university, Laurier depends on government funding, which impacts class size.
“One thing not to lose focus on here is that we are dealt the cards we are dealt by the government as far as how we’re funded as an institution,” said vice-president of academics Deb MacLatchy.
Part of the funding crunch that contributes to cuts, resulting in a reduction in classes offered and larger class size, has to do with Laurier’s program offerings and the large faculty of arts.
Larger class sizes are most noticeable in the arts, and Laurier receives less funding per arts student than for students in other faculties such as the sciences or business.
“Because we have a high proportion of arts students, we have proportionately fewer dollars coming in from the government,” said MacLatchy.
“It’s the government that doesn’t value arts students and says that they’re cheap to teach.”
According to vice-president of finance Jim Butler, since the year 2000 the number of faculty has increased in proportion to the student population.
While funding has not increased along with growth, the number of faculty has in the hopes of maintaining smaller class sizes.
Yet as the fall semester comes to a close the university still does not have final numbers of the current faculty to student ratio.
Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) president Judy Bates explained that faculties such as music can skew the school’s overall student to faculty ratio, as one-on-one teaching is not offered in the faculty of arts.
As students are aware, Laurier is known as a smaller university; along with that comes an impression that there will be a focus on small class sizes.
Professors argue that this reputation is at stake with decreased emphasis on small classes.
Maria DiCenzo, a professor in the English department, said that lower-year classes are being hit the hardest, and she believes that new students are being mislead.
“Laurier promises small classroom teaching, but I often say to my first-year students, ‘Is this what you expected? Isn’t this a problem?’”
Along with larger class sizes there are also fewer class offerings, giving students fewer options.
Professor of history Doug Lorimer noted the impact that lack of choice has on students.
“What is really affected [by larger classes and less variety] is the ability of students to make sound academic choices.”
Lorimer said that outside of requirements for their major, fewer sections mean that students are unable to choose electives; they instead pick up whatever courses they can.
He lamented the end of choice in the sense that students increasingly cannot pick courses that interest them but are forced to take what electives they can manage to get in to.
Packing students in
In the minutes from the Oct. 16 faculty of arts council meeting, which were approved by the council on Nov. 13, acting dean of arts Mary-Louise Byrne asked for ways that “departments can increase enrolment with a no-cost solution.”
Proposed was an “increase in class limits to match the size of the classroom.”
“For example if the class limit is 100 and the classroom holds 104, increase the enrolment to 104.
This will strengthen the faculty of arts’ argument for additional funding from the vice-president: academic’s office,” read the minutes.
Political science department chair Brian Tanguay replied to the idea of filling classes to absolute physical capacity, saying, “Given the way registration works you can’t always know ways to make sure a classroom is packed to the rafters. It just doesn’t work like that.”
Lorimer noted that if registration space was opened based on physical classroom capacity, he would have more students in his classes; not necessarily because they were interested in the material but because “they had to take something.”
Laurier president Max Blouw has advocated a teaching stream that would see some faculty focus on teaching as opposed to research.
Tanguay commented on this idea, saying, “You’d have teachers who would be like drones keeping the place going. Publishing should be essential.
This job – and why I got into it – is to combine research with teaching since insightful teaching comes through research.”
Technology has been cited as a means to offset the negative impacts that large classes can have on academics.
DiCenzo responded by saying, “For all the attempts to try and compensate for large classes – iClicker technology and WebCT and workshops on voice training for working in large classes – there is no one that will convince me that teaching in a smaller class environment isn’t a more valuable experience for the student.”