October 22, 2018

Webster School of Communications experiments with larger class sizes

Webster University’s School of Communications (SOC) is offering a 50-student class in the fall — a decision that has sparked debate on campus.
One section of Intro to Mass Communications will seat 50 students in the fall.

At a College of Arts and Sciences faculty meeting on April 1, faculty discussed the SOC’s addition of a 50-student class. English Department Chair Karla Armbruster said the faculty want to start a dialogue about class size with administration and other Webster schools.

“I think there is pretty wide agreement that we’re very concerned about anything that would boost the average class size at Webster, because we think small classes are very, very important to everything that we do,” Armbruster said.

Audio student Brendan Hoffman said he attended larger universities before he came to Webster. He said more than 100 people could be in a lecture hall at a time.

“It’s a different environment and the learning’s different. It’s more generalized, it’s more lectures and notes. It’s more hands-on at Webster,” Hoffman said.

Armbruster worried students would find themselves running into the same problems they came to Webster to avoid if larger classes became commonplace.
“Academic quality is an issue here,” Armbruster said. “We have a lot of students at Webster who went to big schools with big, impersonal classes who failed there, or just decided they really hated it.”

Dean of the School of Communications Eric Rothenbuhler said class size is not a deciding factor when it comes to class quality. He said the key to a quality class is getting the right mix of instructor, content and students.

“When you get the right match, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big class or a little class — it becomes a good class. That’s the key. That’s what we want to achieve,” Rothenbuhler said.

Adjunct Professor Julie Smith will teach the 50-student Intro to Mass Communications class next semester. Rothenbuhler said Smith was a good match for the larger course.

“Everybody I know who has seen Julie teach thinks we need to get her in front of more students,” Rothenbuhler said. “She’s fabulous in the classroom. That’s the thing about class sizes: the size of the class usually isn’t the most important thing — it’s the teacher.”

Smith teaches classes as big as 75 students at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and said large classes are a familiar setting for her.

Smith said she is confident every student who takes her course will walk out with the same learning experience they would get in a smaller sized course.

“I’m not intimidated by a large number (of students),” Smith said. “I’m very comfortable with this, content with a large crowd, because it’s not necessarily discussion-based.”

Smith said combining the sections could save money by having one teacher teach one class, instead of several teachersteaching multiple classes.

Mary Pat Gallagher, an adjunct professor, teaches an Intro to Mass Communications class in Sverdrup Hall on Monday night. She said one of Webster’s main selling points for students is its small class sizes. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO/The Journal

Mary Pat Gallagher, an adjunct professor, teaches an Intro to Mass Communications class in Sverdrup Hall on Monday night. She said one of Webster’s main selling points for students is its small class sizes. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO/The Journal

Mary Pat Gallagher, an adjunct professor, currently teaches an Intro to Mass Communications class. She said one of Webster’s main selling points for students is its small class sizes. She said it could be difficult to teach the course for a larger audience.

“We learn and grow by trying new things, but you don’t want to lose the intimacy and the relationships you can build when you have a smaller class,” Gallagher said.

Rothenbuhler said the larger courses are reflective of what best fits the teacher, students and subject matter. He said any courses chosen to have 50 students should be considered experiments.

Intro to Mass Communications was a viable choice for the experiment because there were several other sections of the course being offered, Rothenbuhler said. These sections could be used to compare results.

Gallagher said although it is uncharacteristic of Webster to have larger classes, it is the students’ choice to sign up for a larger course. She said while it was surprising to see the larger classes, they are options for students, not requirements.

Armbruster said circumstances may call for classes larger than 25 students, but worried a precedent could be set if 50-student courses are offered too often. She said small class sizes keep students connected throughout their time at Webster.

“That might sound like a luxury, but studies have shown that students who don’t feel connected don’t do as well and often even drop out,” Armbruster said. “But also, you learn a lot more if your professor is responding to your work in an individualized way.”

Student Government Association SOC Senator Natasha Sykes said in a statement to The Journal that she thinks one of Webster’s best qualities is its small classes. She said while 50-student classes are not big compared to class sizes at larger universities, they are twice the size of her classes at Webster.
Sykes said larger classes may give students the chance to have more diversity in opinions during classroom discussions. She also said a large class size would ensure more students would be able to take the course.

Faculty at the Arts and Sciences meeting, Armbruster said, mentioned a concern that larger-sized classes would be pushed off onto adjunct faculty. She said adjuncts are often victims of not being able to say no to taking any class they are asked to teach.

“Adjuncts can’t say no — well, they can, but they have a lot less power. There’s a danger that if some classes (size) are raised, those classes are obviously going to have more work, and the pay is the same. No one is going to want to teach them,” Armbruster said. “The people with the least power might wind up teaching them.”

Another 50-student Interpersonal Communications course was offered, but was minimized to a 24-student course after concerns were raised. Rothenbuhler said the Global Citizenship Program (GCP) Committee had concerns about the course being taught with such a large number of students and needed more time to make sure the class would achieve the GCP learning outcomes.

History, Politics and International Relations Professor Dan Hellinger said a GCP course with 50 students goes against the principles of the program.
“How did a class that is in the GCP program even be considered with that size,” Hellinger said. “Was anyone even paying attention?”

Rothenbuhler said he believed the GCP should have trusted the faculty’s decision to go ahead with the larger class.

“We had a plan. The instructor of the course, the program facilitator and the department chair had all talked through how to teach that class successfully to that number of students,” Rothenbuhler said. “I think it’s the very heart and soul of faculty governance to trust the faculty with those decisions. But our colleagues — other faculty members on the GCP — they were worried about it. They had qualms.”

College of Arts and Sciences faculty members voted to distribute a letter regarding class size to all faculty at Faculty Assembly. The letter, drafted by the chairs of the College of Arts and Science, raises concerns about any class larger than 25 students. Arbruster said the purpose of the faculty’s letter is to start a conversation, not to form a policy on class sizes.

Hellinger said any class with 50 students would be harmful to Webster and would not reflect the university’s character.

In the letter, Hellinger said faculty’s concerns included academic quality, relationships with students, retention, meeting the needs of specific students, maintaining reputation and faculty work load.

Hellinger said the letter would be distributed to Faculty Assembly, and that while it raises concerns, it is not asking any immediate action be taken.

Class Size Statement from College of Arts and Sciences

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