75 vs. 150

As previously mentioned, a significant component of my new job at UBC this year is curriculum design for a first year cohort that will be taking, among other things, Physics, Calculus and Chemistry, and will have English language instruction somehow embedded into the courses or the support pieces around the courses. These students are mostly prospective Math, Physics and Chemistry majors. An interesting discussion we are having right now relates to class size; specifically class sizes of 75 versus 150.

To me, there are two main possible models for the physics courses in this program:

  1. Run them similar to our other lecture-hall first-year courses, where clickers and worksheets make up a decent portion of the time spent in class. In this case, 75 vs. 150 is mostly the difference in how personal the experience is for the students. Based on my own experience, I feel like 75 students is the maximum number where an instructor putting in the effort will be able to learn all the faces and names. With TAs embedded in the lecture, the personal attention they get in the lecture could be similar when comparing the two sizes, but there is still the difference of the prof specifically knowing who you are.
  2. Rethink the space completely and have a studio or SCALE-UP style of classroom, where students sit around tables in larger groups (9 is common) and can subdivide into smaller groups when the task require it. This would mean that 75 is the only practical choice of the two sizes. This type of setup facilitates transitioning back and forth between “lecture” and lab, but it is not uncommon for “lecture” and lab to have their own scheduled time as is the case in most introductory physics classrooms.

Going with 75 students is going to require additional resources or for program resources to be re-allocated, so the benefits of the smaller size need to clearly outweigh this additional resource cost. My knee-jerk reaction was that 75 is clearly better because smaller class sizes are better (this seems to be the mantra at smaller institutions), but I got over that quickly and am trying to determine specifically what additional benefits can be offered to the students if the class size is 75 instead of 150. But I am also trying to figure out what additional benefits could we bring to the student if we took the resources that would be needed to support class sizes of 75 and moved them somewhere else within the cohort.

What do you think about trying to argue between these two numbers? Have you taught similar sizes and can offer your perspective? I realize that there are so many possible factors, but I would like to hear which things might be important from your perspective.


5 Comments on “75 vs. 150”

  1. Ask students. My experience as a prof is that 75 feels distinctly different than 150, which feels different from 300. But given your plan to have students working in groups, I would say that 150 may work as well as 75 – in my current class, my morning section with nearly 200 students is more lively and interactive than my afternoon section with only 70 students. But maybe it’s just the ambient noise level.

    • On the other hand, I would jump at a chance to teach in a SCALE-UP classroom. I think the physical setting can make a substantial difference.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Hi Jung. It is really interesting how different the personalities of different sections and courses can be. And I completely agree that the physical setting can make a substantial difference. In addition to better facilitating peer interactions, the SCALE-UP classrooms clearly communicate to the students that there is something different about that course and there is a serious investment in their learning by the institution, department or instructor (I imagine different students would see that commitment as coming from different places).

  2. bretbenesh says:

    I have never taught a class of either size, so I don’t know anything about anything. But here are my guesses:

    1. It seems like the learning experience in a lecture probably would not be very different between a class of 75 and a class of 150. So it seems like most of the gains would be from non-learning (but not necessarily unimportant) factors, such as students feeling that they belong.

    2. But it seems like there could be significant learning gains if you could teach a SCALE-UP class (I am not certain about this, but it seems likely). You might also get many more non-learning benefits, as students would have a chance to feel part of a community of students. This might keep more students in the major.

    This is all speculation, but my best guess is that 75-student classrooms are not worth it if you are going to lecture, but it would probably be worth it for SCALE-UP classes.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret. I think your thoughts mirror where mine were converging to: 75 not being worth it if it looks like a lecture hall course. SCALE-UP has been a very successful curriculum and quite widely adopted considering the cost barrier of the custom rooms and higher instructor-to-student ratios than the regular courses at those institutions. The SCALE-UP website claims 150+ institutions in the US.

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