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June 12, 2017   Columns Articles | Instructional News | Big impact
Magnify Cantarella, Jason-v.env
Jason Cantarella Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski

Big impact

Small Class Size Initiative changes how faculty, students interact in classrooms

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A smaller class size helped Alice Guzman succeed in her Math 1113 class.

"It's great because you can ask questions. You feel comfortable. You know your classmates and feel fine studying with them afterwards because you've built this relationship with them," she said. "I enjoyed learning in that class."

Math 1113 was just one of the courses impacted by the university's Small Class Size Initiative. The smaller class size allowed Guzman's lecturer, Hee Jung Kim,
to incorporate more group activities to help students understand the material and use some written tests in place of electronic tests.

The university invested $4.4 million in 2015-16 to reduce class sizes by hiring 56 faculty members, including Kim, and creating 319 new course sections in 81 majors by the fall 2016 semester. In fall 2016, 545 additional seats were available as a result of the Small Class Size Initiative, ultimately helping students stay on track to graduate.

The initiative aimed to expand accessibility to high-demand classes and enhance student outcomes for classes with high drop or failure rates. Vice President for Instruction Rahul Shrivastav noted that the new course sections were chosen based on enrollment trends and with an eye toward challenging courses in STEM and business where students would benefit from more personalized attention.

"Once they're in the job market, today's students will be required to use even more analytical skills to keep up with the pace of technology," said Shrivastav. "The question is, how do we prepare them to be ready for these advances? There is a lot of conversation around how we improve learning outcomes overall, and this was just one piece of many different things."

The initiative is making a difference after just one semester. The drop/fail/withdraw rate in precalculus was 33 percent last year, above the national average of 27 percent. For the fall 2016 semester, the DFW rate was cut by more than half to 14 percent. In addition to DFW rates, other data being tracked includes student evaluations, test scores and course grades, as well as the impact on time to graduation and retention rates.

"When you're in a large class, it's easy for someone to get lost," Shrivastav said. "When you're in a smaller class, you have that personal attention that has a lot of impact."

The initiative not only impacts the way students learn, but it also changes the way faculty approach teaching the material.

"The benefits, in my opinion, include greater interaction with individual students, better understanding of students, more individual student attention and a greater level of student participation from those who wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable contributing in a larger group setting," said Andrea Swartzendruber, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health hired as part of the initiative to teach Intermediate Biostatistics and Fundamentals of Epidemiology. "I love getting to know what my students care about, what inspires them and what they plan on doing in their careers. I then try to use that information to incorporate relevant examples and real-world scenarios."

William Graham, head of the math department, said having a smaller class size allowed him to incorporate more group work into his Math 1113 lessons. Kim mentioned that she added more activities, including a review session based on the TV-game show Jeopardy!

"Active learning, in general, is something that seems very valuable," Graham said. "The next time I teach this class, I'll probably try to do even more of it."

From a student perspective, Guzman said that a smaller class size helped her feel more comfortable asking questions and working with her classmates.

"It's given me room to be more adaptable," said Jason Cantarella, associate head of the math department. "With such a small number of people, there is a lot more flexibility in the schedule. If someone is not getting it, I can say, ‘OK, we're just going to stop here and talk to you—that one person—and have a conversation until that person is good with the material.' "

"The mathematics department deserves a lot of credit for its efforts in making this initiative successful," Shrivastav said. "The faculty have set a great example of how to teach a complex subject matter while maintaining a rigorous curriculum. The small class initiative allowed them to make impactful pedagogical changes, which, in turn, resulted in successful learning outcomes for their students."

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