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Large classes increase as Miami student body grows, student engagement impacted

By Angela Hatcher, For The Miami Student

It's 11:30 on a Friday morning. Miami University first-year Darshini Parthasarathy shuffles around in her seat as she prepares for her professor's anthropology lecture. Her laptop is open, Google Docs at the ready. She is eager for the lesson to begin.

Compare her demeanor to the 291 other students who sit around her in a wild disarray, Twittering and Tindering, and you would think that Parthasarathy is a diamond in the rough.

"I'm really focused compared to the majority," she says, chuckling. "But I'm here to learn."

Parthasarathy is among the many undergraduate students who have multiple large lecture hall classes dominating their schedules. But, unlike her classmates, she actually enjoys her class.

First-year Akosua Boadi-Agyemang says that her geology professor still doesn't know her name. Sophomore Savannah Boerger said it was hard to form connections in her organic chemistry class. First-year Davis Lange typically has his hand in the air for 10 minutes before he gets called on in his psychology class. First-year Mona Mae Juwillie says there is a disconnect between professor and student in her anthropology lecture.

The lecture hall environment, while allowing undergraduates to fulfill their general Miami Plan requirements, often leaves students feeling like they are not reaching their full potentials in the classroom.

Miami is trying to rectify this and maintain its reputation for excellence in the undergraduate learning experience by keeping a low student-to-faculty ratio.

"More important in my opinion than average class size is student-to-teacher ratio ... class size simply refers to the number of seats offered for each section of a class," said Carolyn Haynes, associate provost.

According to data from Miami University's website, over the past 10 years, undergraduate enrollment has steadily increased. In the past 15 years, Miami's student population has increased by 21 percent, from 14,914 undergraduates during the 2000-2001 academic year to roughly 17,000 undergraduates for this school year.

The growing number of students has led to a consequential growth in individual class sizes. This year, there are 85 classes with more than 100 students, up from 55 in the '05-'06 school year, according to data from Banner Web.

Miami's solution? Hire more faculty.

In accordance with the enrollment, the amount of full time professors the university has hired follows the trend. Miami University's website shows for the years 2000-2001, Miami had 787 full time faculty members.

For this academic year, that has increased by roughly 31 percent, to 930 professors.

Haynes says that the average class size for the past 10 years has been around 28 to 30 students. The student to faculty ratio has also remained steady at 17:1.

To put this in perspective, the national average class size is roughly 80 to 100 students and the student to faculty ratio is about 37:1.

With all the negative student sentiments, professors speak out about how they feel teaching these classes.

Professor and program chair of anthropology and professor of international studies, Mark Allen Peterson, said he understands the student perspective. He teaches an anthropology lecture class of 300.

"The challenge is always engaging critical thinking," he says. "Small classes almost always work better. Large is best for the lower division requirements where you're mainly receiving information. But, as always, there are things lost, and things gained."

Peterson has his students fill out a survey asking what he should change in the course, what he can do better. He says the feedback is almost always positive.

"I modify the course based on their responses. It's important to me ... as good teaching is important to Miami."

Parthasarathy said the quality of classes - big or small - relies entirely on the professor.

"Compare physics and anthropology," Parthasarathy says. "My physics class has 100 [students] and anthropology has 300. Yet, I learn better in my anthropology class. It just all boils down to the professor - how engaging they are and how well they teach you the material."

As Parthasarathy reflects on her day and heads off to physics, looking slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to sit through another lecture, she remains optimistic.

"All classes are really what you make it," she says. "At the end of the day, whether we pay attention or not is up to us. Sure, having a good professor helps, but the quality of our education, the outcome ... I guess that depends on how much we put in."