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Professors struggle with increased class sizes

fr wcuclassesWhile Western Carolina University’s budgets have been shrinking in recent years, its class sizes have been growing.

From the 2006-07 school year this year, the number of students attending the average lecture on campus has expanded by about 20 percent, and college laboratories, often kept small to facilitate hands-on instruction, have ballooned by 25 percent. That translates to an additional five students per lecture and three students per laboratory.

While five additional students might be a drop in the bucket of a 500-student mega-lecture at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill or another large state school, the phenomenon is a cause for chagrin amongst professors at WCU, where small classrooms and intimate learning is a selling point for their small school in the mountains.

“It takes decades to build a model for a campus,” said Cheryl Waters-Tormey, associate professor for the department of geosciences and natural resources. “And then to have the numbers of students change so rapidly in such a short period of time, is hard to accommodate.”

Bigger classes can adversely affect some departments more so than others. Concentrations like English and laboratory sciences require time-consuming feedback and interactive instruction.

For Waters’ department of geosciences and natural resources, more students make it difficult, and sometimes impractical, to take trips into the field, work directly with research projects and utilize classroom learning devices such as microscopes or rock samples that come in limited numbers.

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For forestry professors, try keeping track of eight college kids in the woods, let alone twice that number.

For a senior research project class, in which Waters has typically taught five to six students in years past, she is now accommodating 10 to 12. That means twice as many papers to correct and half the amount of time with each student. And because her department doesn’t have any graduate students to act as teaching assistants, geoscience and natural resource professors don’t get the extra help some departments do.

Results of a recent survey showed WCU seniors were more likely to receive feedback from faculty, participate in hands-on learning and give class presentations than their colleagues at other UNC system universities. However, Waters worries, if trends continue, WCU might be compromising its trademark style of education.

“We just can’t manage the numbers — it’s hard to do the teaching we normally do,” she said. “It’s really quite stressful.”

Since 2006, WCU has added about 800 students, topping 9,600 in enrollment this year for the first time in the school’s history. Also, during the past few years, the school underwent crippling budget reductions from the state — amounting to more than $32 million — due to the economic downturn, forcing personnel cuts and limiting the number of part-time and adjunct staff the university could acquire to help with instruction.

“Along with enrollment growth, we weren’t receiving additional money,” said Provost Angela Brenton. “In fact, we were having extra cuts in our funding from the state.”

But, Brenton pointed out that this year, funding levels bounced back, and teachers even received their first raises since 2008. Tuition increases also allowed the university to hire some additional help.

The outcome: classes shrunk back down this fall for the first time since 2006. That news is promising after the average number of students in each lecture peaked at 27 last year, about seven more students than the average in 2006.

Yet, Brenton’s vision for the future isn’t necessarily to resist the growth but instead to manage it. She said some classes can get bigger, but others need to remain small.

“There may be some classes that can be taught very well large, but instruction classes or writing classes need to be kept small,” Brenton said “That’s part of what we’re trying to figure out: how to make class size appropriate to subject.”

A seemingly obvious area where classes could be allowed to grow to free up extra instructors is the quickly growing field of online education. Single lectures of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — have classes as large as 90,000 students tuning in from across the country.

But Brenton said accredited online courses through WCU, which are heavy on the interaction between students and professors, are actually more time consuming for instructors than traditional classrooms, so they must be kept small.

“We have found that it’s even more intensive to teach online than in classrooms,” Brenton said. “Students will participate a lot more in that setting, sending emails and writing in discussion boards.”

Rather, Brenton is eyeing already large lectures for further expansion. She said she would like to offer more large class that accomodate 150 to 200 students. However, a limiting factor on the WCU campus is the actual number of lecture halls that can accommodate that number of students. Brenton said she would like to see larger lecture halls, not only for teaching purposes but also to host guest speakers and other venues.

“For a variety of reasons, we need to have more spaces on campus to accommodate large groups,” Brenton said.

University staff is also looking to free up additional space by reallocating resources among programs based on educational trends. Brenton has already assembled a 14-person task force to look at the popularity of the various majors on campus and the cost of running them, among other aspects.

Sandra Oldham, administrative support associate for the department of mathematics and computer sciences, said her department is anything but shrinking. She could use more resources because fields like computer science are where the jobs are at these days.

“If we’re growing, the funds have got to come from somewhere,” Oldham said.

She helps build classes for the department each semester, using a computer program that schedules sections and fills them with students. Some of the classes are small and specialized, but others, like required mathematics classes, are sought out each semester by large numbers of students.

Her first approach is to expand a class to allow more students in; then, she tries to open another section, but that is contingent on available teachers and funding. Sometimes she just runs out of options, and students have to wait until the next semester, or summer school.

“We’ve tried all kinds of tricks to try to make it work,” Oldham said. “But you can’t put 40 students in a classrooms that’s for 35. There’s no physical place for them to sit.”

Recent funding cuts and staffing shortages haven’t made it any easier on her, or the students.

“It has created chaos,” she said.

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