When Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles announced the appointment of the new deans of undergraduate education, he said they would be responsible for addressing the issue of section size.
Although section sizes have been "a longstanding concern of our deans," according to Professor of Chinese History Peter K. Bol, a member of the Faculty Council, there are indications that the issue has recently been coming into greater focus.
Knowles indicated in his recent budget letter that he wanted to try to decrease section size and that topic is a frequent item on the agenda for meetings of the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE).
Sections are designed to be small-group discussions in which students can express their opinions and create a dialogue with fellow students and the teaching fellow (TF). All too often, however, section sizes creep above 17, 18, even 20 students.
"Sections with numbers in the twenties are just absurd," says CUE member Noah R. Freeman '98. "A table with a dozen students around it and six people sitting outside is just not what sections are meant to be."
The most common section size is around 20 students, Knowles says, adding that he thought that was too large. "That number is quite high if, in 55 minutes, one would like to help with problems and involve everyone in a truly participatory discussion," he said.
Although many agree that sections should be smaller, reducing their size requires a substantial financial commitment.
"If we are to reduce the size of teaching sections we shall have to increase the instructional budget, with a consequential reduction somewhere else," Knowles wrote in his budget letter.
Other members of the faculty also say that while reducing section size is an excellent idea, the problem is where to find the money.
Jeffrey Wolcowitz, assistant dean for undergraduate education, emphasizes that there would be a cost to smaller sections.
"It would either be a cut from existing things or a decision not to do other meritorious things," Wolcowitz says.
Despite the high costs, however, many members of the faculty believe that reducing section size is crucial to maintaining the quality of undergraduate education.
"When you get a group above 12 or 15, it ceases to be a seminar and becomes a lecture," says Arnold Professor of Science William H. Bossert '59, the master of Lowell House and a member of the Faculty Council.
He says the workload of the TF should also be a concern in large sections. "In the humanities I've been hearing of sections with 22 to 25 people," says Bossert. "I think that's outrageous."
Elka B. Klein, a graduate student who has worked as a TF for several courses, says that a large section can be difficult for the instructor.
"Last spring I had sections coming close to 20," Klein says. "It means you have less time to spend grading each individual work. It means you don't have as much time for the students."
Klein says the smallest class she has taught had 13 students. "That was a dream to teach," she says.
Although many desire smaller sections, discussion of the issue is just beginning.
"We are beginning--just beginning--to examine how it might be possible to reduce section size," Knowles says. "Eighteen would be better than 20. Sixteen would be better than 18. And so on."
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