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Core seminars constrained by class size, space limitations

The use of small seminar classes to encourage discussion and promote student engagement with faculty is a critical component of the Core Curriculum, the foundation of Columbia’s undergraduate education.

But as the number of students in Columbia’s undergraduate schools increases, current class sizes and inadequate classrooms have left instructors grappling with how to deliver the ideal Core experience to their students.

With over 120 sections offered every semester, Core seminars are resource-intensive for the University, requiring large amounts of both classroom space and instructor time.  

The cap for Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities classes is 22 students, and a majority of classes this semester reached this limit. According to the Director of the Center of the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás, however, 22-person classes are generally too large for extensive student-faculty interaction and insightful discussions.

“I think there is a general sense that smaller than 22 is better, that 22 is kind of at the upper limit of what would allow us to do what we want to do,” Montás said. “Some people think that it may be beyond the upper limit, that it’s really too large.”

Several instructors indicated that ideal Contemporary Civilization and Lit Hum class sizes would be 16 to 17 students, noting that larger classes limit student speaking opportunities and interaction between instructors and students.

"Even if the size can only be brought down to 20, I think that will expand the opportunities for student engagement,” Core Lecturer Kevin Elliott said. “It would expand the opportunities for professors to become more familiar with the kinds of questions from these challenging texts that their students are going to be most engaged with. It would provide an improved Core experience for everyone involved.”

Larger Core seminars often limit opportunities for students to speak in class discussions and can prevent the conversation from addressing topics in depth.

“Often some people will raise their hands to speak, but there’s two or three other people who have their hand raised,” Shaun Jones, CC ’19, said. Jones said that the number of students in his class can prevent discussions from going deeper on certain issues as students frequently raise new topics of conversation. “Then someone would share their viewpoint, and that would be another direction we’re going in.”

Several instructors said that they adjust their teaching plans in order to accommodate more students. Contemporary Civilization instructor Stephanie Ramsey said that she makes use of “small group activities to get ideas flowing before talking as a large group.”

Instructors also have to take a more active role in facilitating discussion in larger seminars in order to encourage quieter students to speak and ensure that certain students do not always dominate the conversation. As classes get bigger, they become more difficult to moderate, and instructors increasingly lecture.

“Striking the balance between lecture and discussion is, I think, one of the subtlest and trickiest things to do,” Montás said. “So much depends on the group, so much depends on the material, so much depends on circumstantial factors.”

Transfer student Ying Xu, CC ’19, said while his Lit Hum class provides opportunities for those who want to speak, the smaller first-year writing course he took at Rice University was more conducive to discussion.

“I think around 20 people is a really big class for a seminar or a class like Lit Hum,” Xu said. “In my previous institution, we took a seminar for a writing class that was a class of 10 or 15 people. I think that works better, and I think we could sit around and go one-by-one and still have enough time.”

Though Montás said that most instructors would prefer to teach smaller classes, finding appropriate classrooms remains a significant obstacle to offering additional sections. Limited space has relegated many sections to classrooms that are not conducive to the kinds of close discussions that the Core is meant to foster, either through lack of seating, the small size of the room, or its irregular layout.

“There are some classrooms that frankly, we think are subpar, that we use out of extreme necessity.” Montás said. “I think the ideal Core classroom is one that has a big table where everyone can sit. A good classroom now is a classroom that has a table where two thirds of the class can sit around.”

The classroom setup also affects discussion and how instructors interact with students.

"Having taught in several different rooms, it makes a big difference the kind of physical place that you are able to teach in,” said Elliott. “I taught in a class … It had an air conditioner that you pretty much always had to run … but the students complained about how loud it was, so they couldn't really hear each other even though it was such a small room. I also had two rows of students [around the table] which was just terrible."

Increasing class sizes across the University has prompted the formation of the class size and education subcommittee within the Educational Policy and Planning Committee. Political science professor and chair of the subcommittee Gregory Wawro is working with other faculty members to analyze large amounts of raw data on class sizes and find ways to amend the situation.

“These are important perennial questions, and it’s evident that the faculty care a lot about this, and the administration cares a lot about this,” Wawro said.

Need for additional space may be alleviated as Columbia Business School moves to the Manhattanville campus in the coming years and vacates its current home in Uris Hall. This space has been promised to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences by University President Lee Bollinger, but its occupation by undergraduates is at least five years away.  

“These are large problems and we expect that they will be eased—I doubt eliminated, but eased—as the new campus space begins to come in line and more space frees up in the Morningside Quad,” Montás said.

Limited faculty engagement with the Core also remains an obstacle—despite monetary incentives offered to faculty to teach Core classes, participation remains low, and the majority of classes are taught by graduate students or lecturers. Montás noted that increasing the number of sections of Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization offered would decrease the percentage of sections taught by faculty, further limiting student engagement with faculty.

Despite the many obstacles to creating the ideal Core experience, Montás emphasized the University’s commitment to keeping Core class sizes small.

“Even though we wish those classes to be smaller, it is a really remarkable commitment we have kept, to keeping those classes that small,” Montás said. “One of the reasons why other schools don’t have things like the Core Curriculum is because of the tremendous amount of resources that that calls for.” | @ColumbiaSpec


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