Does class size matter?

College Classes

By Irene Starygina

We’ve all seen those college advertisements that tout their Small Classes and Personal Attention. In the past decade, higher learning institutions have struggled with balancing the steadily increasing population of applicants while maintaining their selectivity and prestige. Recently, more and more colleges, especially city and state schools, have been expanding the freshman class but not the faculty. But should you automatically rule out applying to a school if the average class size is larger than you prefer?

It’s important to remember that the “average class size” figure you’ll read in a college’s marketing material or on its website is just that – an average. Most schools have a mix of large lecture halls with hundreds of students, medium classes with around 40 students, and seminars with as few as five. The number of people in any given class usually depends on factors such as whether the college has a core curriculum and the popularity of that class’s department. For example, in a college famous for its business major, the business classes (especially on the introductory level) will be fairly large. But if you choose to major in journalism at the same school, your classes may be much smaller. Most colleges have a core curriculum that consists largely of mandatory classes that students have to take before graduation, or before declaring a major. These classes are usually held in large lecture halls, as demand for them is always high.

Contrary to popular belief, a large class size does not rule out a great learning experience. Professors who can foster amazing discussions in a small class can do the same in a large lecture hall—while an apathetic professor can suck the life out of even the most creative bunch of students in even the most intimate setting. “I don’t think class size matters at all; it all depends on the professor,” says Stacy Leydeker, a sophomore psychology major at NYU. “I recently took neuro-cognitive psychology in a 400-person class, but the instructor reached every single person. She didn’t know my name, but it didn’t take away from the experience at all.”

In general, the difference between small and large classes is not the amount of knowledge you walk away with at the end of the semester, but your level of motivation to actually do the work and get the A. It’s actually easiest to slack off in medium classes, which often lack both the rigid structure of multiple choice exams typical in lecture halls, and the discussion-based atmosphere of small classes. “My classes always start with 40 people, but at the end of the semester there are only 5 left,” says Lydia Shteyn, a sophomore at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. She says this isn’t because of the quality of the professors—rather, it’s because the students often don’t care about participating. “It’s so easy to sneak out; you say you’re going to the bathroom and just never come back.”

So how can you excel among phlegmatic students and a professor who can’t control them? Well, look at this as an advantage—you’ll get an easy A if you put in the same effort as you do in the rest of your classes. The best part is that if you put in your two cents in discussions, the professor will remember you long after the class is over, which could mean a great reference when you’re applying to a job, internship or grad school.

Ultimately, the relationship between class size and class quality is not as defined as college marketing strategists may want prospective students to believe. Mike Dassinger, a recent graduate of Ithaca College with a BA in political science, scoffs at students who base their school choices on those figures. “I’m honestly indifferent about class size,” he says. “My best classes were whenever my attendance was near-perfect and if I liked the teacher.” It’s always a good idea to take the reputation of a school’s various departments into account—but don’t confuse that reputation with the size of the class, and don’t be surprised (or overly dismayed) if you find yourself in a class of hundreds in one of the country’s most renowned schools.