Colleges Cope With Bigger Classes

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 25, 2007; 7:08 AM

BOULDER, Colo. -- On weekday mornings, the Cristol Chemistry Building at the University of Colorado is a hive of activity. Every hour, hundreds of laptop-toting students file in and out of its theater-style lecture halls, where classes are scheduled back to back.

In all, there are 33 courses at Colorado with 400 students or more. Three have more than 1,200. Most are broken into sections, but even those may have hundreds of students. One chemistry course is so big that the only place on campus where everyone can take the final exam at once is the Coors Event Center, Colorado's basketball arena.

Such arrangements are here to stay on U.S. campuses.

There already are 18 million American college students, and that number is expected to increase by 2 million over the next eight years, as the value of a college degree continues to climb.

To get everyone through their coursework, monstrous class sizes are unavoidable.

That does not have to be a bad thing. At their best, giant classes can be effective and inspiring _ a way to get the best teachers in front of the most students.

But according to Carl Wieman, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize as a physicist at Colorado, such successes are rare.

Students often tune out and are turned off. Charismatic lecturers get good reviews but, the data show, are no more effective than others at making the most important concepts stick.

Most remarkably, when it comes to teaching not just "facts" but conveying to students the scientific approach to problem-solving, research shows that students end up thinking less like professionals after completing these classes than when they started.

"In a very real way, you're doing damage with these courses," Wieman, now a leading voice for reform, said in a recent interview.

Why are so many big classes broken?

One reason is faculty and departments closely guard their absolute power over teaching, and there is no central body nationally or even on campus to direct reform.

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