Are big classes really a problem?

It’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it.


Having trouble with a difficult calculus problem? Trying to figure out how to draw a resonance structure for your lab report? If you’re a student at the University of Toronto, chances are you’re out of luck. With labs and tutorials packed with more students than the teaching assistants can handle, getting one-on-one time is virtually impossible.

When you’re sitting in a classroom with hundreds of other students, it’s hard to have in-depth discussions about the material—you’re pretty much just showing up to take notes. That’s the whole point of tutorials and labs: filling in the gaps and supplementing the lecture material. The problem is, after a certain number of students it’s not even a tutorial anymore.

CUPE 3902 (which voted 91 per cent in favour of striking on Nov. 30) says 42 per cent of labs and tutorials at U of T have more than 50 students, more than 100 sections have over a 100 students. Additional statistics that paint the same picture: student-to-instructor ratios are terrible, and they’re getting worse.

The question is, does class size really matter? Instead of settling for, “Duh, of course they do!” the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) recently released a report that tackles the question, and the answer isn’t quite as clear-cut as you might expect.

Although smaller classes are ideal, the report found that class size isn’t as important as certain other factors, such as the professor’s teaching style. HEQCO argues that large classes are here to stay, so professors should make the best of them by using strategies to work around the communication barriers. The “isolation and anonymity” of large classrooms make it difficult to connect and interact with students, the report says, but techniques such as “collaborative learning” (questioning students about the material with clickers, for example) can increase student engagement. That way, students are actively participating instead of scribbling in notebooks.

One-on-one interaction might be quickly going extinct, but depending on a professor’s teaching style, student engagement doesn’t have to become a thing of the past.

Just remember to bring your clicker.


Are big classes really a problem?

  1. I read Macleans for years. I would say that in recent years, almost all news reports about U of T are “bad”. It’s true that U of T has a lot of problems, but so do other universities. U of T indeed has the largest tutorial size in Canada, but the quality of TAs are also definitely best in Canada with most of them are knowledgeable graduate students. A LOT OF other Canadian universities hire SECOND YEAR STUDENTS TO TEACH FIRST YEAR. In this case even the tutorial size is 5:1, the students won’t actually get any insightful information. I suggest Mcleans to do some deeper research and really weight the difference before such superficial reports.

  2. As a student at U of T studying Life Sciences, I agree the HUGE classes can be frustrating and tutorials are horrible. I’m in second year and still have 1000+ students in bio lectures. I remember one of my first year bio lectures had so many students (1800+), they had to sit on the floor! In order to get a good seat, you’d have to arrive about 40 minutes before classes start. The professors were actually pretty good but it is quite hard to find help when needed. You’ll need to be more persistent when asking for help.

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