class sizes

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The Uni­ver­sity of Sydney Fac­ulty of Law recently passed a series of changes to the teach­ing of under­gradu­ate courses. The changes are out­lined in SULS’ email (repos­ted on their web site), and the SMH pub­lished an art­icle about it togeth­er with com­ments from stu­dent rep­res­ent­at­ives. Per­son­ally, I don’t place too much weight on the com­ments in the art­icle, because it’s the kind of ker­fuffle stu­dent politi­cians love to stir up.

In sum­mary, the con­ten­tious changes are:

  • A reduc­tion in teach­ing load of aca­dem­ics by 25%
  • An increase in aver­age class size from 40 to 70

I must admit that my ini­tial response to the news of the changes was that of aston­ish­ment and dis­be­lief — dis­be­lief that my return to law school next year will be poten­tially made even more unpal­at­able. From the response so far, I think I can say with some con­fid­ence that a large pro­por­tion of the law stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, on hear­ing of the changes, had sim­il­ar thoughts. Indeed, this had me think­ing about wheth­er I should con­tin­ue on to law school after hon­ours after all; a trans­fer to UNSW does already have its attrac­tions, such as its pretty new law build­ing.

A key attrac­tion of the Sydney Law School has been its claim of “small group teach­ing”, which was pion­eered by UNSW Law School (which has had this mode of teach­ing from its the very begin­ning). Indeed, with cur­rent aver­age class sizes of 40, this is com­par­able to the aver­age UNSW class size.

The sup­posed attrac­tion of small group teach­ing is that it allows for great­er inter­ac­tion between the lec­turer and the stu­dents, where the les­son becomes inter­act­ive, a two-way street. How­ever, from exper­i­ence, the bene­fi­ciar­ies of this sys­tem are a minor­ity (unfor­tu­nately). Even with the incent­ive provided by class par­ti­cip­a­tion marks, the pro­por­tion of stu­dents who act­ively inter­act with the dis­cus­sion at hand is typ­ic­ally small. Fur­ther­more, there is no get­ting away from basic lec­tur­ing — sure, a large part of the mater­i­al is delivered via the read­ings, but a good lec­turer will rein­force the read­ings by cov­er­ing them in class as well; repeated over a num­ber of small classes, this is inef­fi­cient.

The increase in aver­age class sizes does not neces­sar­ily mean a sig­ni­fic­ant loss of “air time” for stu­dents. No sane lec­turer would both­er hold­ing dis­cus­sions in a room with 70 people. The increase in effi­ciency of deliv­ery of lec­ture-type mater­i­al pos­sibly even coun­ter­acts the reduc­tion in total class time. As the exper­i­ence with the revamped second-year con­tracts course demon­strates, an aver­age class size of 70 does not mean that all classes will have 70 stu­dents in them (the aver­age law stu­dent has a poor grasp of stat­ist­ics prin­ciples, I fear). In con­tracts, as I was told today, they have lec­tures of over 100 stu­dents (filling a Carslaw lec­ture theatre) and sem­inars of 10 stu­dents, where they work through prob­lems. This is pre­cisely the enact­ment of what I dis­cussed above — by remov­ing the inef­fi­ciency of repeat­ing lec­ture mater­i­al, the small group teach­ing com­pon­ent is allowed to flour­ish.

As anoth­er friend poin­ted out, the declar­a­tion by the fac­ulty would not mean an imme­di­ate change — because there are only a few rooms at the law build­ing that can facil­it­ate lec­tures of 70 stu­dents. The res­ol­u­tion prob­ably had the move to main cam­pus in mind, where find­ing such teach­ing space is less of a prob­lem.

Just keep in mind that I’m not say­ing that I agree in full, or even in part, with the changes. All I’m arguing is that the changes do not neces­sar­ily mean hell on earth for law stu­dents at the uni­ver­sity, or at least a reduc­tion in teach­ing qual­ity. There may be well-foun­ded reas­ons, and even if there aren’t well-foun­ded reas­ons, the changes do not neces­sar­ily have an effect on learn­ing either. I don’t claim to know more about the situ­ation than any­one else, and as the Dean wrote in his terse let­ter back to SULS, don’t make such a big fuss out of it if you don’t know the full story — speak­ing of which, per­haps SULS could learn from their own hand­book about how to do well in nego­ti­ations.

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