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.