Small seminars, strict lectures or virtual breakout rooms; the average student, taking four to five classes a semester, can have many different classroom environments.
This fall, the smallest classes is a one-person independent study, while the largest class was a 134-person lecture class in psychology. The bulk of the other classes on campus can enroll between 30 and 60 students, though not all those classes are full.
Assistant Professor of Nursing Joshua Knickerbocker says, when small class sizes are not an option, professors face an even bigger challenge trying to keep students focused.
“Class size is difficult to reduce without hiring more professors—it’s just the reality of the situation,” says Knickerbocker.
Class sizes are one of the defining attributes of SCSU’s education with an 11:1 student professor ratio. According to Southern’s Institutional Research reports, over 8,000 students attend Southern as of Spring 2022. Each class is designed to adhere to SCSU’s mission statement of academic excellence. According to the Southern mission statement, putting students first, so that they can succeed, is the main priority of the school.
Dedicated class time for students to interact with professors and peers is a crucial part of education.
Ava Fargeorge, senior, social work major, and president of Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority, says class sizes have affected her learning a lot. Fargeorge says that being able to get to know other students in smaller classes is easier to manage and less nerve wracking than in a larger one.
“I prefer smaller classes,” Fargeorge says. “All of my life I have had small classes. I remember coming to SCSU and having a lecture. That was the scariest thing ever.
“Having a smaller class size creates a comfort level within the room. I can interact in a small group discussion as well as with educators,” says Fargeorge.
She also says smaller classes are beneficial when a course is scheduled for a longer period than the average 50-minute to one 75-minute class. When students are expected to sit and listen for two hours or more, it can sometimes be a challenge to stay focused in a space like a lecture hall which is normally full of people and distractions.
“Staying engaged with a class and professor is very hard, especially when classes are longer,” says Fargeorge.
English Prof. Cynthia Stretch warns how bigger class sizes decreases the amount of time a professor can spend on an individual student. Southern classes are currently capped at the dean level between the departments.
For English classes, Stretch says smaller classes are necessary because of the writing requirements. Stretch says students in English classes would not benefit from larger class sizes because it means less personal time to develop their writing skills.
“We had to really work hard to get the class caps low enough that we could give enough individualized attention to each student so that their writing could actually get better,” says Stretch.
According to Stretch, she wishes that English classes could be smaller than they are now. The current class size for intensive writing courses is capped at 22 students per class because of financial pressures.
“In the English Department all of our classes are three credit hours, but if I were to teach a class with more than 40 students, I would get three, plus some,” says Stretch. “So it is not exactly capped, but it is a disincentive for administration to make classes bigger because they must pay us for it—otherwise, it just becomes, how many seats can you fit in a class?”
Students have their own reasons for wanting smaller class sizes. Depending on the major, a small class size could be a leading factor in a student picking a specific course.
As a more intimate class size seems to increase comfort level for students, it also plays a part in participation and attention span. Fargeorge says that in a smaller class, which is no greater than 15 to 20 students, she is more likely to participate in class discussions.
“When the classes are larger, I tend not to pay attention as much. I get anxious in the bigger group settings and find myself falling behind,” says Fargeorge.
She also states that she has seen good attendance in these smaller classes, especially when a teacher clarifies that it is mandatory at the start of the semester.
Malisa Khamphouy, senior, communication disorders major who currently serves as both vice president of Operation Smile and Service and giving chairman of Alpha Sigma Alpha at Southern, feels that smaller class sizes allow her to connect better with other students and professors.
“If you are in a large classroom, it will be hard to connect with professors within the classroom unless students reach out to them after class. In a smaller class, students can ask questions and gear the content towards what other students in the class are struggling in too,” says Khamphouy.
Khamphouy thinks that smaller class sizes can be especially helpful in courses that are required for a major. Since the content being taught is information that she will use in her future career, she feels more comfortable speaking up in this condensed setting.
“I have an urge to ask questions when I don’t understand content materials,” says Khamphouy.
While Southern does offer classes that are lecture style, their intimate classroom instruction has a better reputation for certain students, as Khamphouy seems to agree with Fargeorge’s thoughts when it comes to courses that take place in lecture halls.
“Class sizes have an impact on learning. The reason I chose Southern was because of the great staff to student ratio,” says Khamphouy. “I believe learning through interactive activities within a class helps me stay engaged with the content as well as being able to have a fond understanding of the content. I find it difficult to learn in a lecture class with about 45 students in a class with one professor.”
Knickerbocker says that although smaller class sizes are ideal, he has strategies to teach bigger classes such as NUR 341 Health Assessment in Nursing, with 60 students. For example, Knickerbocker makes lectures more interactive with the “Think, Pair & Share” method to keep students engaged.
“Basically, I will present students with information, and then I will give them a problem,” says Knickerbocker. “For example, let’s say I am talking to them about an eye exam; I go through and teach them all about the eye’s structure and how you evaluate an eye; then I will give them a ‘patient,’ give them a moment to think about it and then have them pair up with their neighbor to discuss—sometimes I switch up the pairs, in case they know their neighbor well. After discussing what they think it is, they share with the class.”
Students in this program are preparing for their nursing certification exam.
“The course is designed to be exam based; there are five exams in the course and no written assignments,” says Knickerbocker.
Knickerbocker says it is not as easy to tell if a student is struggling in a bigger class. However, with the lack of professor availability these important first classes for nursing majors, like his NUR 341 class, have no choice but to keep the big class size.
According to Stretch, this could lead to a higher demand for online education. Khamphouy and Fargeorge both have admitted to choosing online courses in recent semesters because of their accessibility and professor preferences.
By Valeria Araujo and Caitlin Kirby