The Arizona Desert Lamp

Class Warfare

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 27 January 2009

Large ClassroomOf the many rallying cries in the Arizona Campus Uprising is the clarion call to “Save Our Class Sizes.” Anecdotally, I’ll assert that this is an issue that the masses seem to cling on to much more than the student government leaders and other officials, who are more concerned about department and staff cuts. Ignoring the wierdness of listening to kids who knowingly enrolled in a school with 37,000+ kids complain about large lecture classes, there’s also the question of whether small class sizes are inherently a good thing. A recent editoral in the Chronicle (gated off, but accessible through the Library’s article search) highlights the dark side of smaller classes:

The answer is that many educational interventions, like reductions in class size, don’t just increase the average achievement for all groups of students. They also increase the variability in achievement. In other words, children become more dissimilar as a result of the intervention; their scores spread further away from one another. That greater variability can be seen among children in the same classroom, or among children in different schools and school districts.

Reductions in class size show that effect dramatically: Even as all children gain from being in smaller classes, the “haves” often gain more than the “have-nots.” In fact, when placed in smaller classes, children in the top 10 percent of the score distribution often gain two to four times more than those in the bottom 10 percent. The result is that even though all students make gains in smaller classes — including the lowest-scoring students — the highest-scoring students make bigger gains.

The net result can be a widening of the achievement gap between rich and poor students, and between minority and nonminority students. So, as class-size reduction helps our top students gain ground on the top students in other countries, it also helps further distance them from our own lowest-scoring students, exacerbating an achievement gap that is already large to begin with.

No one knows for certain why high-ability kids do better in smaller classes. One plausible explanation is that the highest-scoring students engage in learning opportunities and take advantage of the teaching practices that take place in smaller classes more than their lower-scoring peers. In addition, it is likely that the highest-scoring students create more opportunities for their own learning in small classes than other students.

Much of this, I think, can be written off as a simple statistical axiom — a smaller sample size generally has wider disparities (on a percentage basis) than a larger sample size. Yet there is a problem if this sort of “educational disparity” (I can’t wait for the Supreme Court case of 2048, in which discriminating on the basis of “educational achievement” is deemed unconstitutional — President Camacho, here we come) develops in the earlier stages of a college education. If the sorting begins in, say, SOC 201, then it’s just going to get worse from there; but if the disparities simply emerge in PAS 492, then that’s a case of the cream rising to the top. Sic vita.

This underscores a point that (I think that) I’ve made before — the issue of class sizes only matters for upper-division courses. In fact, lower-level classes probably should be expanded, to include even more students and to allow for more students to actually take these classes at the UA. Many prerequisite classes are being taken at PCC — and while this works for some, it erodes the basic foundation of the university, and doesn’t help with retention. Perhaps such introductory courses could also be used a source of additional funding — students seeking an online degree could sign up for these classes at a (slightly) discounted rate, to allow them to take one or two classes to get the “classroom experience,” while earning most of the degree’s credits through entirely online courses.

All of these are just ideas, but it all merely serves to underscore the point that absolutism about class sizes is rather absurd.

Image courtesy of Flickr user D’Arcy Norman

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One Response

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  1. Laura Donovan said, on 27 January 2009 at 3:25 pm

    It’s easy to get lost in a big classroom setting, but the students who really want to succeed, will. Even in a lecture of 500, students can go out of their way to meet the instructor during office hours. You can argue that private schools offer an intimate classroom environment and a staff that actually cares about students, but students need to learn how to be assertive and make themselves known because no professor has time to chase after the slackers.

    With that being said, I’m lucky that there are only 350 people in my major and even fewer in my minor because I’ve always had small classes. I know the Political Science, Business, and Psychology majors are really popular, so I agree that the higher level classes in those majors should have fewer people. Maybe the university thinks that enough students will drop out of school by the time they have to take upper divisions, but this assumption is unreliable.


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