Monday, May 23, 2011

Report Concludes That Big Classes Enroll More Students Than Small Classes

The Austin American-Stateman reports that the Texas Public Policy Foundation has released a new studyclaiming that:

Twenty percent of University of Texas at Austin professors instruct most of the school's students, while the least-productive fifth of the faculty carry only 2 percent of the university's teaching load...

Really? Are one fifth of the faculty teaching half of the classes?

No. Of course not.

He [Economist Rchard Vedder, a Fellow at TPPF] calculated the most-productive fifth of UT 's faculty, about 840 instructors, taught an average of 318 students, and 896 credit hours, per year. That comes out to 57 percent of the campus's total student credit hours taught.

That sounds pretty skewed, but mostly all those figures tell us that UT-Austin offers big, high-enrollment (probably introductory) courses and small, low-enrollment (advanced or graduate courses) at a ratio of roughly 4:1.

I work at Texas A&M, not UT, but my own teaching load is instructive.

This fall, I will teach Introduction to American Government to two sections which enroll three hundred students each. That's 600 students and 1800 credit hours. Last fall, I taught one upper-level undergraduate course on Judicial Politics, which enrolled 35 students (105 credit hours), and a graduate seminar on Judicial Politics to 8 or 9 doctoral students (24 or 27 credit hours). In a typical year, I teach the big introductory courses for one semester and a pair of upper-level introductory courses during the other (about 70 students and 210 credit hours combined).

So, my introductory course semester produces a little less than six times as many credit hours as my upper-level course semester. If you looked at data from one of my introductory course semesters along with four of my colleagues who each taught two upper-level courses (210 total credit hours each), you would discover that twenty percent of us (me!) has taught just under 59% of the credit hours between us, which is rather similar to the 57% figure included in the TPPF report. The sizes of introductory and upper-level course varies greatly from college to college and department to department, but it is hardly surprising to find that a relatively small proportion of the faculty at any university teach a relatively large proportion of the credit hours.

Does this mean that the faculty teaching the large course are doing most of the teaching? Hardly. As I have explained here before:

Big (profitable) lecture courses have their place in higher education. The instructor can transmit information and ideas to large numbers of students and be around as a resource to answer questions, advise, deal with current events, etc. However, the size of those courses makes it impossible to provide much attention to individual students or their work. Teaching a smaller course, I can meet with each student individually outside of class to discuss the readings and lectures, go over term paper ideas, review outlines and read drafts of written work, go over old exams, discuss prospective tests, etc. That is physically impossible in a larger class.

The point is, larger classes offer higher numbers of less dense faculty-student interaction; smaller courses offer a smaller number of more dense interactions. At the level of the student, much more teaching is packed into the average small course than the average large course.

What about that least productive fifth, though, who are only teaching two percent of the student credit hours?

It's harder to generalize on this point, but the main reasons a professor would end up teaching such a relatively small proportion of credit hours are that he or she has been teaching graduate-level courses (usually for 5-10 students at a time) or that he or she has been temporarily excused from some teaching duties to assume administrative responsibilities (serving as a department chair, the director of an academic program, or an associate dean, for example). For example, the previous Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M, Charles Johnson, was a professor in the Department of Political Science. As you might expect, Dean Johnson did not regularly teach undergraduate courses during his term leading the college, though he remained a faculty member in his home department. Aggregating up, I am a bit surprised to see that one-fifth of the faculty in UT-Austin fall into these categories (and perhaps some others), but only a very little bit.

The point of pointing all this out is to take issue with Dr. Vedder's conclusion that, "You could enormously reduce the number of people needed to fulfill the teaching obligation of the university."

That is only true by either turning small courses into large courses or replacing faculty administration of the university with some other management force. The former is likely to degrade the quality of education at UT-Austin (or elsewhere). The latter does not seem to offer much potential for savings.

Eliminating small courses would, of course, mean that faculty have less time and attention to devote to individual students in upper-level courses. This makes it more difficult to provide students with meaningful feedback on their work or to help them navigate more demanding material. In other words, an economy of scale can only be achieved by accepting some important reduction in the marginal quality of instruction being offered.

Replacing faculty administration of various university components and programs with other managers would not necessarily relate to a change in the quality of courses being offered. Indeed, I think that improved efficiency and cost-savings in university administration could be achieved by consolidating some administrative functions currently taken on by faculty. However, replacing faculty management with other management mostly reshuffles the costs of running a university rather than reducing them. Also, because the proportion of faculty taken away from teaching by administrative duties is relatively small, the savings to be had in terms of teaching efficiency by implementing administrative reform seem quite modest.

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