Large classes, quality concerns

The Irish Universities Quality Board (which has been the subject of occasional discussion on this site) last week published the institutional quality review of National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM). The review was an overwhelmingly favourable one, and the panel had many positive things to say about the university. But it did have a concern about the growing class sizes, in some subject areas in particular. This is how the issue is addressed in the report:

‘The student numbers at NUI Maynooth have grown rapidly in recent years, resulting in an unfavourable lecturer-student ratio and extremely large student cohorts, especially in first year, in some disciplines (for example, Geography and English). This poses extra challenges in the delivery of effective pedagogy and does not allow personal tutoring of students. The University is clearly aware of this problem and has been addressing it in various ways, such as training lecturers to use new equipment which facilitates teaching in large classes, and using postgraduate students as teaching assistants. While acknowledging the value of the measures taken to date, the Team encourages the University to continue to explore more creative and innovative approaches to the problem of large classes. Much can be learned from the extensive literature that already exists on this subject. Any delays in giving the issue urgent attention risks damaging the student experience at NUIM and, in the end, may be detrimental to the University’s reputation.’

Clearly this is an issue which we are all having to face. Not only is the state funding for universities being reduced, the institutions are also being instructed to reduce staff numbers by 6 per cent over two years; and at the same time student demand for places is up, and universities are being pressed to take on larger numbers.

It is clear that this combination of policies and pressures cannot go on without creating a major quality issue. The whole concept of higher education in this country has been built around teaching students in manageable classes and, regularly, in small groups. Neither the resources nor the staff now exist to allow us to do this effectively. New equipment and technology, or the use of postgraduates to do some teaching, can no doubt make a contribution, but none of that can solve the overall problem.

It seems to me that either Irish universities will have to reduce student numbers decisively, or else accept (and point out to the government) that small group teaching is no longer sustainable. Of course the third option would be to have a new concordat between the universities and the government, under which a financial strategy is agreed – involving state funding that is capable of supporting programmes of study with teaching methods that maximise quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this is available, and so we remain on a path to much larger classes that could, in the end, destroy the international reputation of Irish higher education.

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24 Comments on “Large classes, quality concerns”

  1. John Says:

    I agree with all of this.

    On the technology point I’ve given lectures to a class of 103 at ITSLIGO this year and have found the large lecture theatre, sloping floor, large white-board, PC with the right software and internet, connected to a large projector screen BESIDE (not overlapping) the whiteboard, microphone (lapel mike available) and good speakers make the whole thing a manageable and often enjoyable experience.

    For Lab/Tutorial work, the class is divided into four, and more modest facilities are satisfactory.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      John, the definition of ‘large classes’ clearly is variable. Here 103 would not be considered a large class! With first arts courses having up to 950 students enrolled you can see the challenge!

      • Perry Share Says:

        Does this mean that there are 950 students all attending the one module, provided by the one lecturer? If this is the case, this is patently ridiculous.

        The model I experienced in mid-1980s Australia worked well (this was in what was then the biggest Sociology department in the country). There were probably 800-900 students enrolled in first year modules. There were 4 introductory modules, each with a different emphasis, providing for choice. Each was delivered by a different lecturer, and each employed a group of postgraduate tutors (including me) on decent rates to provide tutorials, some of which were in the evening. The lecturer effectively managed and QA’d this team and usually the tutors went along to the lectures and if they wished would deliver one.

        This was of benefit to all. The lecturers did keep in touch with the tutorials through weekly meetings with tutors (thus avoiding the distanciation that seems to occur in some US colleges), the students got enthusiastic and committed tutors who were in many cases closer to their own age, the tutors learned the rudiments of teaching and lecturing, and the students were offered a choice of approaches.

        To me this system seemed ideal; I don’t know if it was significantly high in cost. If Irish universities are going to take in very large numbers to first year arts, science or business courses, this seems to me to be the only model to adopt. Perhaps this is what already happens in many places? But it is clear to me that with good planning large class size does not necessarily lead to a reduction in quality.

      • iainmacl Says:

        no Perry, it doesnt mean that exactly in all cases, but there are cases where the lecture is repeated once or twice per week so that the size is around 300-400 students per lecture but it does give an idea of the scale of the challenge not just in terms of what goes on in the class but the organisational complexity in managing modular programmes.

        As for ‘patently ridiculous’ .well perhaps you need to tour some universities in the UK and elsewhere (including Australia where class sizes are also large in many cases now) to see how different things are to your own past experience. There’s a well known lecturer in Canada who teaches a single class to 1200 students in a games stadium (1st year psychology) and who tours the world explaining how to keep students engaged in such environments!

        But more commonly in the UK and US as well as other European countries, lectures are ‘spilled over’ into other venues using video-links. Not a great student experience, but a picture of what is happening typically for first year courses in particular in popular subjects in a wide range of countries. This is exactly the point of why so many in the university sector are asking for more resources to teach the large numbers that we have in the system. Yes we can use postgrad students to assist, where they are available, but they are no longer paid for such work directly (part of overall stipend) and budgets are really tough.

      • iainmacl Says:

        of course I should point out that the students have tutorials as well as these lectures, but then the issue is of the class size in the tutorials and the availability of space for hosting the small group sessions, self-study etc….

      • Perry Share Says:

        I think it is important then that academics (presumably through their unions) take a strong stand on what is acceptable and what isn’t. There are going to be robust engagements in the future over the nature of the academic contract in both the ITs and the universities. There needs to be a discussion amongst academics as to the nature of an acceptable academic workload in the contemporary educational context, before conditions are imposed from the outside. I know it can be difficult for some academics to quantify their work, but I can’t see another way to respond.

      • Iainmacl Says:

        yes, but we have an academic workload model (might be good if students had one too! ;-)) that is being implemented here and in other universities, Perry and of course, like the FEC exercise run with the IUA it’s not perfect , but it is a start for those kind of discussions, though class size and how it figures exactly is complex.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    The implicit assumption here is that larger classes will have a negative effect on academic outcomes. Maybe, maybe not but do we know this for a fact? No, actually. The class size effect has been subject to a huge amount of research for 1st & 2nd level. With well over a hundred studies you get all sorts of results but the general thrust is pretty clear: class size is not that important (& what you feel must be the case or what the teachers unions say is irrelevant). What seems to be more important is teacher quality.
    By contrast, there has been much less published research for the case of 3rd level. Which is curious in a way since the people who research this area almost all work in 3rd level. The link below is to an Italian study which finds some effect but do not seize on it just because it conforms with your prejudice.
    The matter is far from settled and far from obvious. It is particularly important not to confuse correlation with causation here. For example, good lecturers & professors are likely to attract more students then their lousy colleagues thus generating a positive association between class size and learning outcomes.
    So this particular margin does not provide a basis for worrying about the reputation of the universities. My own impression is that employers and other universities, when viewing graduates of other institutions, are not easily fooled or distracted by factors that are not important.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      Just a small point because a number of politicians in this country have said that class size doesnt matter at 1st and 2nd level. However, this is not the case. Class size does matter, the problem is that the research which is often quoted looked at small differences such as having 25 or 28 pupils in the class and found no difference. However, when you look at major differences then having 15 in the class (as in some countries) instead of 30 makes an enormous difference, not just to the attention devoted to each student, but in the types of activity, the assessment workload, etc. Anyway, that’s not to take from your other comments, just a small point.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Ok,but large policy changes such as reducing clas size from 30 to 15 are very seldom on the agenda so its the 28 to 25 margin (say) that is being advocated. There is also a non-linearity, such that class reductions beyond a certain size probably make no diference.

  3. Walter Says:

    Congratulations Ferdinand – once again you hit the nail on the head. The problem with the current third level education system is that we are accepting way too many students. Half of them are ineducable – they can’t read, they can’t write and as for abstract thinking…

    Let’s give up this misguided notion of “universal access” for once and for all. It is only serving to drag the whole system down into mediocrity.

  4. Vincent Says:

    For the past few weeks the Civil Service has had days where they have not done certain work. The Passport Office not answering phones or not doing ‘priority’ type of thing.
    This sniping is a huge error in two main areas. It is seen as a petty niggle and vaguely cruel on the group that they want on their side, while not bothering overmuch the ones they what to bother and in reality is handing them political capital to cut another 10/15% in the next budget.
    The University Sector -in part because that is exactly how you think of yourselves- is in very real danger of following the CS down that same track. But there is on these Islands a very real feel that the exchequer is getting a Ryanair level of service while paying for First Class seats.

    • Jilly Says:

      But the Exchequer isn’t pay for First Class seats, that’s the point. Ireland has one of the lowest per capita expenditures on higher education in the OECD. We’re being asked to teach students on the cheap, so we end up teaching giant classes. Big surprise.

      • Vincent Says:

        That may well be true Jilly, but that is not the perception. Have you listened to the nightmare going on in the Passport office at the moment where they have people building themselves to sit-in hunger strikes.
        They have lost, and if they persist the Dail will move to remove all CS privileges with the full backing of the majority.

    • Sally Says:

      Vincent, I think you should argue the facts rather than the perceptions. It’s intellectually purer.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Two random comments:
    1) In assessing how well higher ed’ is being supported, I think using, say, per capita expenditure relative to some other average is potentially very misleading (& is that per head of population or student?) The costs are different, for example academic pay differs a lot across country. Using the share in GNP is misleading for that & other reasons. I don’t think there is simple coherent way of making these comparisons.
    2) On the class-size issue: in UCD at least – and I believe elsewhere- there is a high non-attendence rate (& no, this isn’t just in my lectures) so class-sizes are much less than their nominal values. If you were to increase the latter by say 6, I think its unlikely that all 6 would actually show up. Perhaps in some areas they would, where it would be noted.

    • Jilly Says:

      So if we can’t assess how well higher ed is supported by using per capita (of either student or population – and by the way, Ireland scores badly on both) or as a measure of GNP (we score badly there too), how are we to measure it?

      • kevin denny Says:

        Short answer is.. there no short answer. To put it another way, it depends on what question you are using it to answer. As a share of GNP, its saying how much of our income we are prepared to sacrifice for education. That’s worth knowing but you may be able to achieve a particular outcome more easily in some countries. Lets say a country has a really efficient education system: you would expect them to spend less, other things being equal.
        Personally, I don’t really care whether we are spending more or less than the Greeks or Fins. I don’t see how these comparison are that useful though I acknowledge they are inevitable. I think its better to have certain educational goals (such as literacy rates, participation rates, skill levels in maths, science etc) and then see are we achieving them.
        Although this is only a hunch, I think that if we spent the existing funds better we could probably achieve a lot of our objectives. The same is true, perhaps more so, for our health services. The problem is that this involves making really hard decisions and, in particular, confronting vested interests. And we can’t have that, can we?

  6. John Says:

    Will two graduates who achieved 50% in their finals make the same contribution as one who achieved 100%?

  7. Brendan Says:

    Actually yes. One will have emigrated and the other two will be on the dole, so none will make any meaningful contribution here for some time.

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