College class sizes expand, stretching faculty and students

University of Iowa freshman Marni Noeh of Chicago takes notes during a lecture in Professor Jeff Cox's western civilizat
University of Iowa freshman Marni Noeh of Chicago takes notes during a lecture in Professor Jeff Cox's western civilizations class in Phillips Hall at the University of Iowa on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011, in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Average class sizes have inched up at Iowa’s three regent universities in the past several years, and recent state budget cuts could be partly to blame, officials said.

Numbers from the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa show slight increases in average class sizes and faculty-to-student ratios in the past several years.

Also, the number of smaller class options — those with less than 30 students — have decreased, while the number of medium and larger class sections — with 30 to 100 students, or with 100 or more students, respectively — have increased at all three universities.

“Generally, for undergraduate classes, if it’s under 15, colleges are asking hard questions right now,” ISU Associate Provost Dave Holger said. “There’s been a push to have more middle-sized classes, if you will, and not have really small ones at Iowa State. We can’t afford to teach a class to that number of students anymore.”

While several students said they haven’t noticed the shift — adding five or 10 students to a class here or there may be imperceptible to students — faculty say adding even a few more can make it harder to grade and give meaningful feedback on writing assignments and to build relationships with students.

“The nature of the interaction changes” as classes get larger, ISU psychology professor Veronica Dark said. “As classes get up around 50, or for some faculty it’s even lower than that, the exams become all multiple-choice exams. You just don’t have the person power to actually look at the writing component.”

At the UI, average class size increased from 37.3 students in fall 2008 to 38 in fall 2009 to 39.2 in fall 2010. At ISU, fall 2010 numbers weren’t available yet, but average undergrad classes increased from 35.1 in 2008 to 36.3 in 2009.

ISU’s numbers include all class sections and subsections, such as labs, discussions and recitations, while the UI’s numbers look only at main class sections and don’t include subsections.

UNI doesn’t track overall average class size but measures faculty-to-student ratio. That increased in recent years, from 16-to-1 in fall 2008 to 17-to-1 the past two fall semesters.

Michael Licari, UNI associate provost for academic affairs, said it’s hard to pinpoint any one reason why class sizes have increased. It’s likely the result of numerous factors, which may include budget cuts, increased enrollment and faculty hiring not keeping up with enrollment growth, he said.

The overall average does mask a tremendous range of class sizes that vary greatly by department and subject, officials said.

The big decline at the UI seems to be in classes of less than 10 students, Associate Provost Beth Ingram said. The shift from small, specialized classes to more medium-size offerings likely can be attributed to belt-tightening and hiring fewer part-time faculty and lecturers to meet student demand, Ingram said.

“It’s been a concern,” Ingram said. “The humanities faculty are concerned about still having the kind of writing assignments they would like to have.”

Some argue that once a class gets to a certain large size that bumping it up by 50 or 100 makes no difference, but UI history professor Jeff Cox disagrees. In his more than 30 years of teaching, he’s had classes of 15 and classes of 450.

“Lecturing is a relationship; you establish a relationship with the audience,” Cox said. “Very different kinds of relationships are established at 400 or 250 or 100 or 30. It also very much affects student satisfaction levels. Students prefer smaller classes.”

Several students said they haven’t really noticed if their classes are larger in recent semesters, but said they do prefer smaller classes.

“I definitely think it’s better if it’s smaller, because you can ask more questions and connect with the professor,” said UI junior Angela Cox, a math education major from Iowa City.

While the 20-year-old has some lecture classes in the 100-to-200-students range, she also has an 8:30 a.m. class with just eight students.“I think it’s so small, because it’s so early in the morning,” she said.

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