Section Sizes Worry Faculty

Although College guidelines limit average section size to 20 students, some professors and teaching fellows are concerned that sections in their classes are too large.

Yesterday, after telling his class that sections were too large for effective discussions, the chair of the English department took half of the 22 students in a section of his course, English 150: "English Romantic Poetry," into another classroom and taught them himself, while the teaching fellow taught the remaining 11 students.

"I was told that if I had [enough] undergraduates I could request an additional teaching fellow. I don't know if I'll get it though," the department chair, Professor of English and Comparative Literature James T. Engell '73, said in an interview. His course currently has two sections of 22 and 24 students, according to Scott J. Karambis, the teaching fellow.

Engell's problem is one facing many Faculty members: hiring more teaching fellows takes resources that could improve classes in other ways.

"We constantly try to keep section sizes down," said Kenneth A. Shepsle, chair of the government department. "I have tended to allow my colleagues to make special appeals to take on extra teaching fellows to keep section sizes to what they believe are reasonable numbers."

According to Jeffrey Wolcowitz, assistant dean for undergraduate education, section size has been a perennial concern of the Faculty, which for the first time has enough control over its budget this year to realistically discuss reducing section size.

In his annual budget letter released at the end of January, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles reported that the Faculty is in better financial health than it has been in the past because of steadily rising income.

Even so, Wolcowitz said that using more money to reduce section sizes may not be the only way to improve sections.

"Are there alternative ways for spending incremental funds that might have a greater impact on undergraduates?" he asked.

Other ways to improve sections include more training for teaching fellows, integrating technology into teaching and hiring more faculty.

According to David Pilbeam, dean for undergraduate education, Faculty members made no decision about sections at Monday's meeting of the Resources Committee, chaired by Knowles.

Pilbeam said he is unsure whether more money should be used directly to reduce section sizes.

"I think [small sections are] important, but so is making sure that section leaders are properly trained and prepared and that sections are carefully thought through as part of the entire course," he said.

James E. Davis, head tutor of the chemistry department, said he also believes that training and supervision of teaching fellows is "very important."

He meets with all his courses' teaching fellows weekly to discuss issues related to teaching.

According to Davis, teaching fellows in introductory chemistry courses attend a two-day training program in September and teach video-taped practice sections, after which their performance is critiqued by a consultant. Training is more intense for teaching fellows whose first language is not English.

In addition, Knowles recently required all teaching fellows to attend lecture in the courses they are teaching, a change to which Davis attributes "tremendous improvement" in section teaching.

Size Restrictions

According to Wolcowitz, the College's guidelines state that the average section size in humanities and social science lecture courses should be 20 students.

He said that on average, reality matches the guidelines.

"It is well-informed by data that average section size greater than 20 is very, very unusual," he said. "When students experience that, it's because they are allowed to migrate and choose sections."

According to Davis, College guidelines limit lab and quantitative course sections to only 15 students, a policy he said "works well."

Wolcowitz says science sections are smaller because of concerns about supervision in labs.

But Karambis said he believes the ideal section size in the humanities is 12 to 13 students.

In larger sections, "the teaching fellow ends up asking a lot of questions, which is different from 12 or 13 students sitting around a table and talking to one another," he said.

Pilbeam said he expects more discussion on section teaching, although he added that he does not expect the Faculty to take any concrete measures for some time.

For now, Engell announced that he will divide his sections in half each week and students in the class will alternate being in his section or the one taught by Karambis.

"I can do that because it's not on the budget. I think it's important enough to do that," said Engell, whose course requires close readings of poetry.

"The situation is bad for graduate students and bad for undergraduates. I don't know the exact details about the financial situation, but the University should make it priority to reduce section sizes," Karambis said. "It's not so much that we feel exploited. It's just that we feel lost in the academic experience."

--Georgia N. Alexakis contributed to the reporting of this story.