Throughout my college education, I almost always learned the most in classes with low student-teacher ratios. Yes, I learned from great professors in lecture halls filled with more than 50 students, but the educational experiences that made me the curious, creative, and inquisitive person I am today were those that featured close interactions with professors—interactions made possible solely by a smaller class size.
I am originally from Norway, and started my college education back home in Oslo. When I attended the University of Oslo, I felt lost in a big crowd because each of the classes I attended had more than 100 students. While I was certainly not the most motivated student back then, few professors even knew my name. Moreover, large class sizes with less accountability made it easy for me to not pay attention and fall behind.
After my brief domestic college experience, I attended a small liberal arts college called Augustana College (now University), in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At Augustana, I majored in physics, so most of my elective classes were naturally quite small—around 10 students. This helped me tremendously when learning the complex material we were covering, such as statistical physics or quantum mechanics. We all got to ask whatever questions we may have had during class. The professor knew all of our names and could follow up with each student after tests and homework. Augustana and Columbia's 3-2 Combined Plan Program eventually led me to Columbia.
When I first came to Columbia, the classes I took were all made up of 40 to 60 students. Although sizes of my classes did get smaller and smaller as I advanced from introductory lectures to specialized electives, my overall academic experience at Columbia certainly could have been improved by smaller class sizes.
Yes, Columbia's overall student-faculty ratio—6 to 1 for undergraduates—is great. However, this statistic fails to account for the faculty members who rarely interact with the students. These professors do not necessarily provide the same quality of education as professors who prioritize student interaction.
Furthermore, a low student-faculty ratio does not reliably lead to smaller class sizes. The more important statistic for prospective students when considering whether or not they should choose to spend the next four years in Morningside Heights may be the average class size. Currently, Columbia reports that 80 percent of undergraduate classes are made up of fewer than 20 students. Even so, there is no mention of the final 20 percent. There are also no official statistics released containing the overall class size and distribution—numbers that would be easily accessible by the administration.
Smaller class sizes don't just help students—they also benefit faculty members. Professors can focus on their teaching rather than managing a crowd of students. They will have more chances to interact directly with and give attention to all students, which again will lead to higher satisfaction among students, and likely higher ratings for the professors. Last but not least, the low ratio will improve the professors' work environment. It is much more pleasant spending mandatory teaching hours with students who know they are the center of attention rather than with a crowd of individuals who know their absences will go unnoticed.
Of course, not every class is the same, and yes, there are classes in which the main objective is not one-on-one discussion, but the successful transfer of information. For these classes, a high student-teacher ratio might work relatively well. Still, a smaller class would mean more opportunities for each student to ask pertinent questions and actively participate in the class rather than just jotting down notes without ever raising their hand.
Columbia's position as a top-rated and world-renowned educational institution and its low student-teacher ratio are closely related. Smaller class sizes would only further support Columbia's existing reputation by offering something unique: a chance to interact with professors in a much smaller arena, to be inquisitive without the feeling of holding 50 other students back (or be too embarrassed to ask a question in the first place), and to receive a truly personal education, rather than being part of an educational assembly line.
After all, students are Columbia's most valuable asset. If reducing class sizes can increase the satisfaction and success of students, then there is no doubt that this will pay off in the long run—that students' worldly contributions will eventually give back to the school, perpetuating a better quality of education.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate who majored in mechanical engineering. He was the 2014 SEAS salutatorian and is currently working for a residential solar company in New York City.
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