Sunday, April 08, 2012

Large classes might undermine teaching/learning quality

To cope with the problem of continuing low birth rate that leads to low enrollment in private universities, our school and other higher education institutes have come up with a simple way to cut down the cost. By merging small classes into larger ones to teach students general courses like Freshman English and Freshman Chinese, it is hoped that personnel expense, the teachers’ pay, will be lowered. However, while the accountants of every school are busy in doing their arithmetic to save money for the school, one very crucial fact is ignored. Teaching and learning quality will be the first victim of large class.

Using large classes to teach freshmen English or Chinese does not start now. Years ago I taught a 120-student Freshman English class at the evening section of a private university (name withheld). Though the school paid me 1.5-hour for each hour I taught, I was still feeling like a “teacher man”(教書匠), a term I borrowed from the humorous work of the same name by Frank McCourt, an Irish American teacher/writer. It was needless to talk about teaching and learning quality of a 120-student Freshman English class because there was none. That university told us teachers that class lecture was conducted in large class, but small discussion groups would be formed to further the study for students. I had never seen such small groups organized until I quit the job there. I guess it was only rhetoric said to the education authorities.

Large classes are not necessarily an evil as long as related measures are taken care of. A college classmate told me that her daughter in MIT took a 400-student undergraduate class, but the teacher was supported by over twenty teaching assistants (usually Ph.D students) whose job was to lead discussion after the class and help grade papers. Does our school plan to assign any TA to the large class?

We Chinese often say that education is a business of conscience. We know private schools rely on tuition fees received from registered students and do not own as much resource as their public counterpart. Nevertheless, I have a question for those who supported the idea of creating large classes. Since it is acceptable to open a class in the summer session at the minimum of ten students, which means that the school will not lose money at that number of students, why is large class insisted? How do you feel if your child is the one who sits with other 119 students in a big class with nothing else to aid the teaching?  

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