College lecture hall: learning in a crowd


COLLEGE PARK - For the first meeting of her Psychology 100 class recently, University of Maryland freshman Jessica Yaquiant sat near the front and tried not to gaze at the mass of humanity behind her.

The professor was lecturing into a microphone about scientific methods of observing people, but the shy, earnest - and somewhat overwhelmed - recent graduate of Catholic High in East Baltimore had already made an observation of her own: "This class is bigger than my whole high school."

The sign near the door of the class said "Lecture Hall." With about 450 students joining Yaquiant in the tiered auditorium, it might just as well have read, "Cineplex Stadium Seating."

Lecture classes remain one of the most daunting rites of passage for college freshmen at many schools - an immediate lesson in near-anonymity.

But these days for huge institutions with equally large aspirations, the large courses present challenges of a different sort.

In their eagerness to attract greater numbers of top-flight students, many state universities are trying to reduce the percentage of classes with more than 50 students - or at least make their large lectures more engaging and less intimidating.

"You walk in before class and it's like, 'Whoa!'" Yaquiant says. "Everybody has their newspapers out and people have their headphones on.

"Cell phones are going off, pagers are going off. Then the microphone doesn't always work, and there are people in the back yelling they can't hear."

Most large lectures also have smaller discussion groups, often taught by graduate teaching assistants. UMCP officials say they try to assign the most popular lecture classes to professors adept at holding a class's attention - sometimes through humor, sometimes through discipline.

"The key is to keep a few people from screwing things up for everybody else, because anything that distracts me is disruptive for the class," says assistant economics professor Jonah Gelbach, who has taught classes as large as 460 students.

Gelbach recalls the time a student's cell phone went off during his large microeconomics lecture: "I made her answer it in front of everyone, and we all waited quietly while she explained that she was in class.

"Had I been a bit more ambitious, I probably would have asked her to let me answer it."

Says Amy Silva, who took Gelbach's class earlier this year after transferring from the much smaller campus of Vassar College in New York state:

"He made sure that everyone in his class wanted to be there. If you read the paper, sometimes he'd just automatically kick you out."

At less than one-quarter the tuition, Maryland enjoys a price advantage over many private schools in attracting the state's best high school students.

But like other state universities its size, it must work to overcome the stereotype of a school too large and impersonal to cater to those - whether gifted or struggling - desiring small-class style interaction.

"This can be a challenging period for an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old as they learn about themselves," says Ben Baron, who oversees college admissions consulting at Kaplan Inc., the private education and career services firm.

"The goal is to try to get the student into an environment where they can thrive. For some of them, class size will be an important factor."

In its annual rankings released a few weeks ago, U.S. News and World Report magazine said that 14 percent of classes at College Park, which has about 25,000 full-time and part-time undergraduates, contained 50 or more students in 1999.

By comparison, the figure was 14 percent at the University of Virginia (13,600 students), 12 percent at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (9,000 students), 18 percent at the Johns Hopkins University (4,300 students), 3 percent at Coppin State College (3,200 students) and 3 percent at Towson University (14,000 students).

Small classes are a point of pride at Towson, and a marketing tool. Most schools its size have at least three to four times the number of big lecture courses as Towson.

Towson's original buildings were designed 85 years ago for about one teacher for 30 students, "so this is a ratio that comes from our history and from a conviction that it's better to have a more intimate, one-on-one relationship with the student," says Dan Jones, the university's interim provost.

"In order to afford the smaller sections, we have to make sure they are all filled."

College Park's efforts at making large feel small are taking many forms -- from making professors more accessible via the Internet, to living/learning residences matching students with common interests, to an honors programs with 700 students.

At UMCP, the number of really large classes - those with more than 100 students - totaled 5.7 percent last year, down from 6.6 percent in 1995.

College Park Provost Gregory Geoffroy says that's still too high.

"It's a constant balancing act," he says. "Right now, for example, communications is an enormously popular major, and it's taxing our ability to keep classes at the size we want.

"But do you tell the student they can't major in it?"

To be sure, some students prefer large lectures because they're never going to be put on the spot in class or, more beneficially, because "it allows them to have a private journey," says Maynard "Sandy" Mack Jr., director of the university's honors program.

But the university also wants to be certain that such students as honors freshman Nathan Taraska have classes intimate enough so they can, as Mack puts it, "spark off each other" in discussions.

Of his five classes, Taraska, of Franklinville, N.J., says the largest is an astronomy lecture with about 60 people.

But, predictably, that's not the course that made the biggest impression during the first week of classes, which began Aug. 31.

In a testament to the merits of a cozy classroom, Taraska's eyes brightened when he recalled a recitation in his Shakespeare class of 20 students taught by Mack, who asked them to read aloud a character's line from "Macbeth" so they would appreciate its meaning.

"My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out!" cries Macduff in the play.

For Taraska, the line sprang to life. "It related to people who can't express their anger, so they use their fists or their guns," the freshman says.

It was the sort of teaching moment that such students as Yaquiant - who had anticipated perhaps 100 students in her Psych lecture and ended up with four times that amount - pine for.

For now, she's using her front-row strategy to cope as best she can. and Provost Geoffroy says that's the smart approach.

"She did the right thing.," he says. "Sitting up close is always good advice. The other advice is that if you need help, seek it out."

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