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Large classes can mean some don't get a seat, but all get the needed credit.
John McDonald/the Gauntlet

The struggle between class size and availability

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In a university plagued with large class sizes, one professor fought to make his class just a little bigger. In response to overwhelming demand for an oversubscribed psychology class, Dr. Don Kline signed off on 20 new seats for the only section of the course offered this year.

Though the university has come under fire for large class sizes from students and Maclean's magazine's university rankings, Kline believed this was a special case.

"Smaller classes are generally better but I don't know that they are in this particular context," said Kline, a former U of C undergrad. "One hundred and twenty versus 140, I don't have personal interaction with students, except office hours and at the end and beginning of every class. It's a talking head, multiple choice scenario."

The class in question is held in ICT102--a lecture hall that commonly houses classes of 250 students with room to spare--and uses material generated from the psychology instruction project in lieu of a textbook. The class comes from a basket of courses students can pick from as one of the core classes for a psychology degree, Kline explained. Kline found it puzzling that such an important class­--which ordinarily offers two sections per year--was met with such controversy when he pushed to add the extra seats, given that ordinary considerations such as physical seats in the classroom and textbooks weren't an issue.

Class size was identified as one of the key concerns for psychology majors in a survey conducted through a research project undertaken by Psychology Students Association president Kara Irwin.

"People trying to get into classes that they need has been a problem in the department of psychology for a while," said Irwin.

Despite classroom sizes being a major concern, Irwin felt Kline was acting in the best interests of psych majors with his move to increase the size of his class.

"Dr. Kline cares a lot about students," she said. "Students say they're concerned with class sizes and the department is concerned with class sizes as well, but there are so many psychology students that need to graduate, and that's a course they need."

Kline also identified PeopleSoft as one of the major challenges surrounding enrollment into his class, citing student issues with enrollment in classes when seats appeared to be available but actually weren't.

Kline wasn't the only person having problems with PeopleSoft.

"There's been an obvious frustration with students with the PeopleSoft switchover," said Students' Union vice-president academic Brittany Sargent, identifying the Service Stop as another common problem for students.

"When Service Stop was put together the way it was, the intention was really good," she said. "[But] the implementation hasn't been successful and the university is aware that it hasn't been as successful as they had hoped."

Sargent also pointed to classroom locations as a large source of student dissatisfaction with their classes and said many students had voiced concerns to her about lecture halls sitting unused while classes were being held in trailers that aren't conducive to an effective learning environment.

"We're currently trying to understand, as well as we can, what the available stock is and how to most efficiently match it to what courses the faculties are teaching, so shortage is a relative term," Enrolment Services acting vice-president David Johnston said of the perceived classroom shortage. "It's quite often the time of the day that's the problem."

Johnston explained the system by which classrooms are selected as a process in two steps, in which the registrar first works with departments and faculties and then doles out classrooms based on specific needs and requests of individual courses.

"We take as many requests as we can and place them where the faculty thinks is the best place, and the computer sorts out the rest," he said.

Johnston suggested students speak with departmental advisors if they are unable to find suitable alternatives for required courses that are full.

"Scheduling classes is important for students," said Johnston. "We're getting ready to do what we can to try and do this better, but we are aware it's a problem and just making classes bigger isn't the solution. So, it's one of those things that we are working on."

Kline remained a dissenter on the issue, and said he would prefer to let instructors decide on an individual basis what the cap ought to be for courses.

"If I had 250 students, it'd be fine by me," he said. "That doesn't make me right, that's just my perspective on it because I don't think it's fair to have a class that we tell students they should probably take as a core class and then we don't let them. It doesn't make sense. Why are we wasting resources like that?"

With recent changes in the make-up of administration, Sargent was optimistic that the issue would be resolved in the near future.

"There's a whole bunch of new people coming into the university who are being made aware this sort of thing exists," Sargent said. "When you have new people coming into an organization fresh, problems that are being communicated to them right away are the problems they're going to look at."

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Comments

I'd put money on the class being Psycholoogy 369 - Sensation and Perception.

I agree with Kline in this particular situation, as much as I'm loathe to admit it. This is a pretty important class for psych majors to take, and with the large amount of both psych majors and psych major wannabes... It's a pretty popular class.

Twenty seats aren't going to make that much of a difference, really, which is an unfortunate statement to make.

We would like to thank the Gauntlet for bringing attention to the issues of class size and class availability at the University (ìThe struggle between class size and availabilityî, January 31, 2008). Psychology courses are among the most popular on campus and the demand for our courses far exceeds our instructional capacity. It may surprise readers to know that the Department of Psychology is no larger than it was when the university first opened in 1966, despite the large growth of the campus overall. As a result, our Department is acutely aware of the tradeoffs between class size, class availability, and the quality of the course experience.

While we welcome any attention to this dilemma, the article contained a serious error that we must bring to your attention. Dr. Kline stated that the Department of Psychology requires its majors to complete Psychology 369, yet it did not provide enough seats for students to register in this course in the winter session of 2008 (i.e., according to Dr. Kline, ìI don't think it's fair to have a class that we tell students they should probably take as a core class and then we don't let them. It doesn't make sense."). This sentence is misleading, since Psychology 369 is not required of every psychology student. Further, we always ensure enough seats in Psychology 369 to accommodate psychology majors, and every psychology major who wanted to take this course was already registered before Dr. Kline requested to overload the course. Indeed, of the original class of 120 students there were 41 psychology majors, all of whom had registered well before the add/drop date. The remaining students in the class, including the 20 additional students who were overloaded into the class, are taking the course as a non-required elective. Thus, contrary to the impression conveyed in the article, it was not necessary for Dr. Kline to overload Psychology 369 in order to provide seats for students who required this course. The Department of Psychology is committed to ensuring that all of its students are always able to register in the courses they require for their degree and would never knowingly create a situation like Dr. Kline describes.

We were also quite puzzled by the impression given in the article that it was necessary for Dr. Kline to fight to overload his course by 20 seats (i.e., ìOne professor fought to make his class just a little biggerî) and that his request was ìmet with controversyî. Although there was some discussion about the request in the Department, and while the implications of overloading this course for other courses was considered, there was really no fight or controversy in this matter. Rather, Dr. Klineís request to overload Psychology 369 was granted by the Department expeditiously and without argument, particularly since the room that the course takes place in could accommodate the increase.

Contrary to the opinion that class size is not very important, our sense is that students see things very differently. A recent survey of Psychology students shows that they think psychology classes are especially large. This perception is not unfounded, as we know that 90% of 300-level classes in the Faculty of Social Sciences are smaller than Psychology 369. Large classes are a continuing concern at the university, and the university administration and the Studentís Union are committed to addressing this problem. The Department of Psychology shares in these concerns. We make every effort to balance competing demands: to ensure that psychology majors have access to required courses, to accommodate the interests of students who seek psychology electives, and to keep class sizes at reasonable levels to ensure the highest possible quality of instruction.

Keith Dobson, Professor and Head, Department of Psychology

Christopher Sears, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Psychology

Re: Above comment:

"Dr. Kline stated that the Department of Psychology requires its majors to complete Psychology 369, yet it did not provide enough seats for students to register in this course in the winter session of 2008 (i.e., according to Dr. Kline, ìI don't think it's fair to have a class that we tell students they should probably take as a core class and then we don't let them. It doesn't make sense."). This sentence is misleading, since Psychology 369 is not required of every psychology student."

Actually, early in the story, I noted Dr. Kline pointed out that 369 comes from a basket of courses psych majors can choose as a core course.

"The class comes from a basket of courses students can pick from as one of the core classes for a psychology degree, Kline explained."

When he was quoted later in the story, the word "probably" was meant to indicate that, while it wasn't necessary for students to take 369 (they could have taken a different course from the basket) it was an important class none the less. Dr. Kline made it very clear early in the interview that the course wasn't technically required, and I tried to reflect that in the article.