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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

How entry level courses can be smaller

Published: January 24, 2014
Section: Opinions

If you remember walking into your first class here at Brandeis and being completely astonished at how many students were sitting in this tiered lecture hall, you are one of many. As I am early in my college career and have not finalized my major, I have had the pleasure of having taken quite a few introductory lectures, where you are simply listening to the professor drone on while trying not to fall asleep. Many students will not say that they chose Brandeis for the lectures. Incoming students want smaller, more personal classes. While the statistics might suggest that Brandeis is quite competitive in that category, it does not tell the whole story of exactly which classes are less crowded than others.

When entering college, students typically take the required courses first. Unsure of what subject they want to major in and looking to get a broad range of ideas and knowledge, first-years and sophomores enroll in classes that they absolutely need to pass in order to graduate. They tend to save the more sophisticated and specialized classes until they have already declared that subject as a major or minor and take it as an elective. These habits seem to force the lower-level classes to enroll a vast amount more students than the higher-level courses in the same subject.

The university should try to lower the enrollment in these entry-level classes, even if it means that the smaller classes have to suffer. What I have gathered from my time here at Brandeis, I take it that the Introduction to Psychologys of the class catalog are partially filled with students not entirely sure if they want to major in psychology and just want to see what it is about. Perhaps they need to fill a graduation requirement and just pick the first one that comes up on the search and enroll. Yet for students who have already declared psychology as a major, this oversaturation of students makes it more difficult to receive the proper instruction in a crowded room.

All majors require students to pass a certain amount of courses to receive a degree in that field. These include a few core courses, depending on the department, and an additional amount of electives are required to round out the program. If the college were to limit enrollment into the required courses of a major or minor to only those who have already declared a major in that field, the amount of students in these usually crowded lecture halls will decrease. The professors would have an easier time parlaying the information to their class with more ability to discuss questions that might arise—questions that may not have been asked if the student was sitting towards the back of the hall.

For those who need to fill one of the general university requirements, they would have to take a higher-level course. While it may be a bit advanced for a biology major to take a class on English Romanticism, that student will end up more capable of succeeding in other similar courses because of it. Since there is a more personal approach in a specialized class, the pupil is more responsible for their participation and effort they give the class. Instead of just a general knowledge of the field, they have to really focus on that particular subject matter. The same general knowledge that was taught in the introductory class is still covered, albeit in a more broad, quick stroke, and the student is able to pick up on the major ideas of the subject and almost take two classes at once.

The same applies to students who simply want to see what anthropology is about or want a better understanding of how economics work in predicting supply and demand. They would have the opportunity to enter a class that would be more suited to their specific interest in that subject. Also, the first-years who usually take a class to get an idea of what it is are introduced to the department in a more personal approach. They get to communicate with the professors more and see what exactly this field aims to study.

To accomplish this, the registrar might need to offer more elective classes each semester in order to provide room for all of these students that are not allowed in a lecture with a 999 enrollment cap. A wider range of electives would create more opportunities for discovering an unknown skill or interest. Another approach would be to create a new class in each department that aims to teach some of the basic tenets of a subject for those not looking to continue past this course without needing to make sure all of the material is covered for the next course in line. I know that the economics department has a class just like this, Econ 2A, that, on the course summary, states that it is intended for students not exactly looking to major in economics. Some of the more popular majors and departments can start a class like this that only runs in the fall semesters.

This whole design does not really work for science majors, however. The sciences typically have a set pathway that must be followed each semester to finish the major within four years. Students who do start off in a science class either already know that they will continue with this plan or jump off at the first possible point. I would be surprised to find a student at Brandeis taking a chemistry class just to see what it is about or because they are thinking of majoring in chemistry. It would also create a need for more classes, professors and buildings if more electives were offered each semester, which might cost a bit too much for the benefits offered by a change in class enrollment policies.

Yet it is certainly something to consider. The university should always be open to new ideas that can create a better environment for learning. Smaller lectures would make it easier for students majoring in a subject to get the most from the class. Students not majoring in that subject would end up with more interest-specific knowledge of the field. Every student would end up benefiting from this, I believe, and due to that alone, a change in course enrollment should be enacted. Sadly, matters such as this are never determined by just one group.