In support of smaller-scale learning

Bigger isn’t necessarily better, at least when it comes to the university experience


I just read this article by Margaret Wente, which got me thinking about my school. She brings up a number of good points about a shifted focus in the post-secondary education system — a focus on articles, not students. Graduates, not undergrads. Classes the size of small towns, it seems.

I, quite frankly, can’t figure out how anyone can learn in a giant lecture-style setting. Actually, I’m lying; I can’t relate to it. A situation where I read and see someone talk from 20 rows away, rinse and repeat twice a week and never discuss the material almost seems to defy the purpose of university.

Why bother leaving your room? Listen to podcasts of lectures. I could even download lectures from universities around the world and do the reading and listen to them and learn just as much. A friend of mine, before I left for university, suggested to me that if I ever had a bad prof for a common course, to check podcasts from other universities. Why even bother joining any one university when you could theoretically pick and choose among professors from universities around the world and never even see them?

This trend concerned me when I read this post by a mom of two university students about her son and daughter’s swine flu protection plan:

“They’ll be doing two of their electives by distance education and, with the exception of two labs – where their physical presence is required – their other courses could easily be done by podcast if necessary.”

Darn those pesky labs — if not for them her children could spend all year in their residence rooms mainlining caffeine and Tamiflu. I think we’re all forgetting what I think is the most important part of the learning experience. It all comes back to that same reason why King’s students return: community. A growing, learning community of academics, one that starts in first year with an intense year living, eating, and learning together, complete immersion in learning.

Imagine: professors, TAs and undergrads all living in the same place. There would be class lecture/seminar/discussion-style classes, but then those discussions would spill out of the classroom and to the dining hall. You’d challenge your professor’s position over a drink in the campus bar. You would find common ground somewhere like the dining hall, or even the chapel because in this community, everyone is learning and learning from each other.

This is exciting. This is my experience of school, every day. At the University of King’s College, the faculty don’t live on campus as they used to but they may as well, they’re around so often; I see them in meal hall, in the bar, on the quad, at club and school functions. My biggest class this year is 25 people, since I take all courses offered at King’s and none through the King’s-Dalhousie partnership. I just find this a stimulating, exciting way to learn.

So, “Big Five”, here is what I propose to you. Smaller, not bigger. Be inspired by the Oxfordian model, the one we aim for at King’s. Our education system needs work, and I believe this is a better direction.

I can’t really speak to the experience of attending a large university like Queen’s or U of T, because that isn’t my experience, but I do encourage you to avoid isolating. What is the point of being a part of a community of academics if you never access any of this? And I do include other students in the category of academics. So take small classes, introduce yourself to your professor, go to tutorials, get involved in clubs, in student government, but please, please engage in your university.


In support of smaller-scale learning

  1. So many commentators blithely moan about how “universities” have become so big, how students never meet actual professors, how teaching is not valued. This may be true in some parts of Canada, but not in the Maritimes, for the most part.

    You want your kids to be in small classes with real professors who actually like to teach? Send them east.

  2. I think you have a really good point.
    After all, isn’t learning – for the sake of it, because you love learning and want to be at school – about engagement with those around you? It’s not a one dimensional succession of power point slides.
    I’ve found that in third year, for the first time (outside of traditionally small j-school workshops), my classes are suddenly small, even intimate. It’s wonderful, but it also makes me feel like this is the first year that any resources have really been devoted to me, as a student, by my university.
    This close relationship with my profs and fellow students is a welcome turn from jumbo-classrooms, and it;s a compelling reason to pursue a nice, small grad school program.
    Good job for choosing King’s!

  3. With an undergrad from a small Maritime university, and a graduate degree (working on the second one!) from one of the Big 5, I could confidently state that had I been subject to the sort of learning environment that I saw the students in the classes I TAd go through (600 person first-year courses!), I would have gotten the heck out of there, and wouldn’t have made it to grad school…

  4. Our three daughters (aged 26, 24 and 22) have so far (or are currently studying at) Trent, Nipissing, Western, Carleton, Bishops and University of Toronto. My advice to anyone looking toward university? Bigger is not better; if you want quality head for a small university.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. The students I lived and studied with at Bishop’s have gone on to grad schools, or onto interesting jobs.
    My thinking? The small undergraduate institutions are good at prepping for life in the “real world” or grad school, and the perfect place to grow and make lasting connections. Typically, they are also in smaller communities, forcing students to live together away from home. This leads to a unique, immersive experience.

    Go small unis! It’s time for Canada to have a “Small 5” based on the principles of something like the Annapolis Group in the USA.

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