Oct. 6, 2017

How big are classes at UVM, and what does that mean for how faculty do their work? In their press release of Sept. 12, 2017, UVM’s administration claimed that “the majority of classes at UVM have 20 or fewer students in them.” This is true, as far as it goes.But it obscures more than it reveals.

Student Experience

First, students may then ask: why do so many of the classes they take have more than twenty students in them?

The answer is simply because the number of classes is not a very useful measure of student experience. What really matters is how many students are taking small classes at any given time, or how many seats are offered in classes of different sizes. To take an extreme hypothetical example, if two thirds of 60 classes had only two students in each, and the other third had 500 students each, you could say that the majority of classes were under three, even though only 80 seats would be in those small classes, and the other 10,000 seats would be large classes.

Looking at seats rather than classes at UVM, 74% of the seats are in classes larger than 20, with 26% being in classes of 20 or fewer.And 23% of the seats are in classes with 100 or more students.Most of the time, in other words, most students are enrolled in classes larger than twenty.

Faculty work

Second, the press release seems to imply that smaller classes mean UVM faculty do less work than faculty at other universities.

UVM is rightly proud that many of its classes are smaller than those at many flagship public universities around the country. Small classes often offer a better educational experience, and allow students more direct contact with UVM’s teacher scholars. (UVM’s administration is also very aware that larger classes could threaten the appeal of UVM to the seventy percent of our students from out of state, whose tuitions provide UVM’s single largest revenue stream.) United Academics values the small classes that UVM offers its students, and the faculty who work hard to teach those classes.

But it is simply wrong to imply that smaller classes are easier to teach. Our faculty are proud to be a part of an institution that takes teaching seriously and allows us to work closely with our students.  The small sections offered at UVM are writing intensive courses that require extensive faculty time and effort.  Teaching students how to write effectively requires faculty to spend many hours every week reading and commenting on student work.  Thus, small class sizes do not necessarily suggest less time commitment from faculty.  The faculty at UVM are also proud that we do the vast majority of grading ourselves. This is in contrast to most flagship public universities in this country where graduate student assistants to do most of the grading.  Again, this effort provides our students with a much higher quality education, but it comes at the cost of many more hours of work for our faculty.

If you look at credit-bearing classes with non-zero enrollments and eliminate things like independent study, a majority of classes are enrolled with less than 20 students.