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Sections Are Way Too Big

By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Lucas T. Gazianis, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

Months ago, a friend wrote me the following, which became the basis for this entire column: “I am graduating with a decent GPA and I know barely anything about economics. Seriously, almost nothing. I’m not joking when I say you could learn what I know with three textbooks and three months of time.”

I know my friend isn’t alone, and neither are Economics concentrators. I’ll say it: Much of what we learn here goes in one ear and out the other. I think that’s pretty telling — something about Harvard’s class structure just isn’t working.

My previous pieces have aired grievances with the way we learn at Harvard, attacking the standard lecture model, our hunt for gems, and our pre-professional nearsightedness.

But an even more fundamental issue is at least as widespread at the College: large, ineffectual sections.

Around 10 years ago, a teaching fellow-led organization called the Harvard Teaching Campaign mounted a campaign to limit section sizes to 12 students. Their reasoning was simple: Smaller section sizes would bring a better learning experience to College students.

It ultimately failed, and our sections remain large. For example, a 2019 document from the College’s Program in General Education states that it targets an average of 15 students in each section.

But the campaign’s central message was right. Our sections are too large, and students lose a lot of learning as a result.

Large sections too often translate to underwhelming learning experiences. As the sole supplement to large lectures, sections are the few times in which students are supposed to get more tailored, detail-oriented instruction that can help clarify important concepts.

Instead, they often sit there inattentively, chiming in once or twice to register participation points.

Furthermore, large section sizes allow students to slack off. Particularly for humanities classes, there’s a big difference between fifteen people in a classroom and eight people in a classroom. If it’s the former, a slacking student could eke by without doing the reading or participating in discussion. It is far more difficult to show up to an eight-person class with nothing prepared and nothing to say.

Rather than fifteen-person Gen Ed-style sections, we ought to adopt the tutorial model, built around seminar-style discussions often capped at eight or 10 students, as a default.

Two of the best courses I’ve taken at Harvard were Social Studies 10, a lecture course paired with a rigorous weekly tutorial, and a Social Studies junior tutorial on democracy and education that shaped my interest in education and inspired my senior thesis. Each had seven or fewer students — and it made all the difference.

In these smaller tutorials, students cannot hide — they do more of their readings because they’re expected to speak more in class. As a result, the discussions are better and more thought-provoking. Often, they have left me thinking for hours after class.

In fact, the very nature of tutorials discourages students from launching into bloviating monologues aimed to hide that they have only lightly skimmed a small portion of the week’s readings.

It’s possible that my experiences in Social Studies tutorials were so positive because they were about interesting topics with students who self-selected into a rigorous concentration. And, certainly, not every tutorial is life-changing or better than every section.

But there’s something more potent at work, something a great tutorial can create that a section rarely does: excitement to be there.

Following tutorials as a model, section sizes should decrease to around 10 students or fewer. Naturally, that requires hiring more teaching fellows and course assistants. But the College’s resources are unimaginably vast, and improvements in student learning are precisely what we should be spending on.

The College often touts the “transformative experience” it offers us. It’s boldly inscribed on our admissions letters and repeated at convocation and on the University website. And it’s true in many respects — my experience here has been transformative.

Imagine if students felt that way after the average section.

Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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