Thursday, September 17, 2015

University of Georgia Bets $4.4 Million That Small Classes Can Bolster Learning

The University of Georgia, seeking to improve the classroom experience of its undergraduates, has begun a faculty hiring spree to reduce enrollments in hundreds of courses. The university will hire 56 full-time, teaching-focused lecturers and professors over this academic year. It is one of several recent efforts at the research-focused institution to improve its educational environment. Others include the creation of a series of freshman seminars and the requirement that incoming students participate in a hands-on learning experience. "It’s a piece in a larger puzzle," said Rahul Shrivastav, vice president for instruction. The addition of instructional faculty represents only a 3-percent increase to the university’s full-time teaching staff, but it is notable for its focus. Other institutions have announced large, multi-year hiring campaigns in recent years, but they typically aim to bolster research capacity. In cutting down class sizes, Georgia took a strategic approach, Mr. Shrivastav said. Administrators examined data to find the courses that students most frequently dropped out of, withdrew from, and failed. Consulting with deans and department heads, the academic leaders further zeroed in on courses with the worst bottlenecks that stymied student progress. A slate emerged of 319 courses across 81 majors, including introductory courses in business, chemistry, mathematics, and political science. "There could have been 100 more," Mr. Shrivastav said. Students this semester are enrolled in 120 new, smaller sections of nine courses. Some sections, like "Legal and Regulatory Environment of Business," were halved, going from 140 to about 70. Others experienced comparatively modest trims, like "Calculus I for Science and Engineering," from an average of 39 students to 29. Most of the new sections across departments now have between 23 and 30 students. There was no ideal class-size target, just the governing principle that smaller is better. The goal, Mr. Shrivastav said, was, "Let’s try for really small courses where it will be a more personalized, more interactive experience." Read more...

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