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Discussing ‘How College Works,’ Chapter 4

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, the authors of our current book, How College Works, have agreed to guide our discussion. If you don’t have the book, it’s not too late. Try your campus library.

The discussion will take place on Twitter (#ChronBooks, @DanFChambliss, @ChrisGTakacs). Our other featured participants are listed to the right.

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From Dan Chambliss:

A small class is—by definition—one that most students aren’t in. Think about it.

This idea, loaded with implications, is the basis of “The Arithmetic of Engagement,” the shortest and perhaps most intellectually challenging chapter of our book. (It was certainly the most difficult to write.) Small classes seem so obviously beneficial, although expensive, that students and teachers alike want more of them. But a class benefits only the students who actually take it, and—again—small classes are those that by definition exclude the most students.

Clearly, some educational work can be done only in small classes. And it may be true that, other things being equal, small classes are better. But other things are never actually equal, and arbitrarily capping class sizes often limits students’ access to good teachers, interesting topics, and the broader intellectual communities that grow up around larger collections of students.

A few years back, I taught a well-regarded course of 80 students. One day I asked if the students had any suggestions for improving the course. Many said, “It should be smaller.” I offered to cut the class size in half—which, again, they eagerly applauded. Then I asked them to write their names on slips of paper, so we could draw out which 50 percent of the students would be allowed to remain in the course. Enthusiasm for shrinking the class vanished immediately.

When Chris and I give talks on our research, the opening sentence for this post (see above) always elicits a big laugh from the audience, though only after a moment’s hesitation. They have to think about it.

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From Chris Takacs:

A small class is—by definition—one that most students aren’t in.

Dan and I spent considerable time thinking about how to write about the class-size issue. Early on, we relied on a metaphor of musical chairs to describe it—as class sizes shrink, students scramble for the remaining seats, while others drop out of the game. Much of our struggle in deciding how to present the idea that smaller classes leave students out stemmed from the fact that the idea isn’t based on an empirical finding at all, but a logical, mathematical one. In a sense, we didn’t even really need data to make the point. It’s true by definition.*

The point is perfectly generalizable to any kind of institution. Anywhere a class is made small, some other class gets a little bigger (provided faculty numbers and workload remain the same). And, moreover, if it matters at a place like Hamilton College, where we did our research, and which has a fantastic student-faculty ratio, it is likely to be a problem elsewhere as well.

It matters how a class becomes small. A class that is small because students don’t want to take it is fundamentally different from a class that is small because it has an enrollment cap. That qualitative difference is completely invisible when looking at the usual numbers like student-faculty ratios and the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students. Those numbers aren’t inherently meaningless, but they can completely misrepresent what students in the college are actually experiencing.

* This point was made, quite well, in an article I came across several months after How College Works was published. The piece, written in 1977 by Scott L. Feld and Bernard Grofman and published in Research in Higher Education (Volume 6, Pages 215-222) is “Variation in Class Size, the Class Size Paradox, and Some Consequences for Students.” The authors eloquently describe the “paradox of class size” that we discuss in Chapter 4. Much to my regret, I missed the article in my literature review on class size, and, as such, we do not include discussion of it in our book. It feels appropriate to mention it here.

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