More direct contact can only happen with fewer students.

26 01 2010

This is what happens when a bunch of college administrators get together and try to improve teaching:

Likewise, several speakers argued that the recession is no reason for colleges to be complacent about the quality of their instruction. “In this time of complete free fall, there are plenty of opportunities to grab,” said Ken O’Donnell, associate dean for academic-program planning in the California State University system’s office of the chancellor.

Mr. O’Donnell is working with campuses to adopt what he calls “high-impact practices”—including classroom models that involve more-active student learning and less rote lecturing—in introductory courses where students often struggle.

Those reforms do not involve any substantial expense, he said—and they can reap financial dividends if students’ dropout rates decline.

[Emphasis added]

The Washington Monthly College Guide (where I got the Chronicle link above) makes the obvious point:

The trouble with this is that talking about improving instruction in terms of motivating professors to care about instruction is that, as one commentator pointed out, is that “this whole push ‘to motivate professors to improve their teaching’ is that it doesn’t square with the reliance upon cheap adjuncts to teach a larger and larger proportion of those ‘introductory courses where students often struggle.’”

I’d argue that this proposal is flawed at an even deeper level: If you really want to encourage “more-active student learning and less rote lecturing” you have to destroy the large lecture course, the mainstay of large state systems like the two in California.

Twenty is a good class size for a discussion. Forty is doable, but not great. By the time you get to Sixty I’d argue that any teaching method but lecturing is completely impossible. Think of the ambient noise when half an auditorium full of students tunes out their fellow classmates since they’re questions won’t be on the test! Think of the problems repeating both sides of a conversation if the room actually wants to hear them. Turning such sections into manageable numbers would require hiring more instructors, not less.

This brings us back to the Washington Monthly argument. Do you think this guy from the Cal State system is assuming that adjuncts would take over the splinters of defunct large lecture courses (thereby spurring a cost-savings) or does he think he’s going to convince someone teaching three hundred students to start teaching like they’re only teaching thirty?

My money is on the former. After all, he’s from California, isn’t he?



2 responses

26 01 2010

And with this issue so few want to turn it around and ask if there might be a problem from the student end:

Why don’t students learn from lectures? Why do they NEED small sections?

I mean, throngs of previous generations were able to learn via the lecture format, so why is it now pedagogically verboten?

I have, for quite a few years now, been an advocate of the fact that the abysmal pre-college preparation of new college undergraduates is the primary reason there are such problems with “poor outcomes,” low graduation rates, etc.

If Johnny has never read a book, exactly how much will he be able o grasp Freshman comp or Lit 101? If Janie can barely do arithmetic, how can she possibly be expected to pass College Algebra on the first try?

And let’s not forget that lowered expectations hurt everyone. I love how FINALLY more people are noting how watering down the curriculum harms the smarter students in class. The last writing class I taught bombed because the smart kids felt I was teaching down to them and the not-so-smart got p-o-ed because I was failing them.

Guess whose TONS of extra hours of work as an adjunct to help the kinder resulted in scathing course evals?

27 01 2010
Jonathan Rees


You’re not going to get a fight from me on this.

More importantly, if I’ve never said this before, thanks for reading and commenting. I think I’d do this for therapy if nobody ever read any of it, but it is nice to know I actually have an audience of you and more than a few lurkers.

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