Enrollment Caps: How High is Too High?


A philosopher on the job market writes in with a question about course size:

A school that may offer me a tenure line position has a 65 student cap for intro courses, and I would be doing all the work (no grad program, no student graders, etc.). It is likely that I would have have to teach 2 such courses at once during either Fall or Spring, in addition to handling an upper-division course. Question: do you have any idea if this cap is reasonable for state schools? 

If those of you who are or have been at schools with no graduate program could share how large their classes have been when teaching without assistants (to run discussions and grade), that would be helpful. Please indicate if you’re at a public or private school.

Also welcome are more general thoughts on class size, reports of innovative ways your department has reduced course size, thoughts on how to teach large classes well, and the like.

lecture hall large

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Dale Miller
5 years ago

Long ago when on a one-year position I had two classes that were between 70 and 100. I had “TAs,” but they were undergrads themselves and so I couldn’t use them for grading (or much else, although they were both as helpful as they could be). This was in addition to 6 other smaller courses of various sizes. Now my courses are never larger than 35. All of my teaching has been at public universities.Report

Michael Cholbi
5 years ago

65 per section strikes me as unusually high. At my state institution, tenure-accruing faculty standardly teach three courses per quarter. Most courses (introductory or upper level) are capped at 35 students, so most faculty will be responsible for teaching about 100 students per quarter.Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

35 cap per section, three sections. The two lower-division sections tend to fill, the upper-division doesn’t.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Public school.Report

RB
RB
5 years ago

My first semester as a visitor at a medium sized state institution I had intro sections of 200 and 175. I had some TA support but I didn’t know how reliable it would be when I walked in. As a result I used a lot more objective testing that term. I think 65 is probably not atypical, though neither is it ideal.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  RB
5 years ago

I would think that with that big a class, objective testing would have to become the norm, which I think many of us agree is unfortunate. Giving 350+ students meaningful feedback on a regular basis on written work would just be overwhelming.Report

SLH
SLH
5 years ago

The introductory-level classes I teach at a state school are capped at 60, with 4 per semester being the full-time load, no TAs or assistants. I’ve heard that they are “supposed to be” capped at 45 if you are teaching the full four intro courses, but this has not been my experience.Report

Ray
Ray
5 years ago

I’ve interviewed for many positions and if I was offered a class of over 50 students I was told that I would have a MA student as a TA, but I’ve also been asked to teach a class of 50 students without a TA, even though the dept had a grad (MA and PhD) program. Sixty-five students without a TA seems like a lot and something I’ve never heard of.Report

Ray
Ray
5 years ago

Ray-All experiences were at public state schools.Report

Perplexed Marketeer
Perplexed Marketeer
5 years ago

I think the cap in individual classes is less significant than the total number of students per term/academic year. I once declined a VAP job that would have carried a potential load of 420 students over the course of the year (three quarters X up to 140 students per quarter). Regarding the OP, 130 students plus whatever number the upper course carries, per semester, would likely be around 320 students a year (assuming that he or she would be teaching the two intro courses in both fall and spring, which is unclear in the query). That is a heavy teaching load, roughly equivalent to a 5/5 teaching load with a cap of 30 students per course.Report

Hedon
Hedon
5 years ago

At my CSU system state university we are on a 4/4 load, but reduced to 3/3 for the first 2 years. Intro and GE courses are capped at 40, core philosophy major and writing intensive (5000 words) courses are capped at 30, our special seminar topics are capped at 25. If we teach bigger classes, then they count as 1.5 or 2 courses equivalent. We occasionally get TA support if we get a grant, but they are undergrads, and not that helpful.Report

Rosa Terlazzo
Rosa Terlazzo
5 years ago

I teach at a state school without a grad program, and our intro courses are capped at 35, with a 2/3 load. Whether the cap is reasonable or not, with that many students I would think it would be incredibly hard to get any research done while also doing writing assignments of any kind in your classes.Report

Nick
Nick
5 years ago

My experience is from a state institution in the UK: 80-odd students, upper level course, two lectures a week and five seminars every fortnight, two essays per course, no TAs or any other assistance with lectures, grading, or seminars. I don’t think that’s especially unusual in the UK.Report

Dien Ho
Dien Ho
5 years ago

A quick contribution to this important discussion. I once taught a logic course that had 750 students. I had a cohort of terrific TAs but managing them took work. Although the TAs did all the grading, teaching a large lecture class with that many students really changed my entire pedagogical approach. There was no way to form any meaningful mentoring relationship, e.g. And, if only 5% of the students emailed me with pressing issues daily, I had over 30 students who had severe needs that demanded urgent attention. TAs are great but once the class gets to a certain size, it really becomes a different job.Report

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

Some of my intro classes are capped at 100, some at 60. I have a 4/3 load. Last term, I had 220 intro students and 25 upper-division students. Having that many students (and classes that big) changes how you can teach. It changes what you can expect the students to get from the class. It changes what you can expect from your student evaluations.

I had an intro student come up to me last term after class and say, “I really wish we had the chance to write essays, so we could actually do philosophy!” I wanted to say, “you and me both, buddy.”Report

JMM
JMM
5 years ago

One other consideration: find out whether caps have been increasing in the past few years and/or whether they are likely to increase in the future. When I arrived at my institution (public college), the cap for Intro courses was 25 (3/2 load for the first 5 years, 3/3 after that). The cap was then raised to 30, then 35, and it is now being raised to 40. That’s a 60% increase over 5 years and there is virtually nothing the faculty can do about it because enrollment caps are not part of our contract. Make sure that there are safeguards against the caps getting higher before you commit. Report

Zac Cogley
5 years ago

Our department caps into philosophy at 70, while all other classes are capped at 35. One rationale for the larger caps is feeding students into the major/minor (assuming those exist). Most students don’t start college with philosophy as a major and so have to experience it. One of the best ways of making that happen is larger intro classes. There are lots of ways of handling the workload in such classes, including well-constructed multiple choice tests, undergrad TAs, small discussion groups in class. Note, also that the load under discussion is only 2 preps. It could be a lot worse!Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

I am absolutely boggling at these stories of classes of 70-100 and more. Where I teach at a public community college (so no TAs or graduate students), the standard teaching load for full-time faculty is 5/5, and classes are generally capped at 35. I consider this to be a huge class, and I consider 20 – 25 to be ideal. As it is, I have a total of upwards of 200 students each semester, and juggling all of that requires a lot of organisation and concentration. I can’t even imagine trying to give students the attention they deserve with a significantly larger load, and my hat is off to those who manage it. Report

MBW
MBW
5 years ago

State institution, 4/4 load. Intro classes capped at 70 and 48 (keyed to size of classroom); upper division at 35 (though enrollment is usually around 15.)Report

Jim McBain
Jim McBain
5 years ago

I am at a state university of roughly 8000 students. 4/4 load. 3 introductory level courses per semester (44 or 99 seat which depends on which room you get) and one upper division course per semester which is a writing intensive course (25 cap). No assistants at all. I am responsible for all prep and grading. This is the requirement for all faculty in the program (regardless of rank). Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
5 years ago

Currently at a public CDN university with intro caps of 65, no grading help. Previously at a public CDN university with caps of 100, undergraduate grading help if you wanted it (reduced to caps of 50 due to fortuitous circumstances). Prior to that at a public US college with caps of 40, no grading help. And even prior to that at a public US university with caps of 50, no grading help. Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

Given the job market, I would not hesitate to accept that position if other aspects of it are favorable. That said, I’ve taught at seven different institutions and only in one school did I have classes above 35 (that was core Critical Reasoning with 150+ students, but objective computer graded tests). I now teach 3/3 at a SLAC with Intro and Ethics capped at 25 and other courses (including courses that fulfill various core requirements) capped at 20 or 15, depending on the level. Having read what others deal with, I feel extremely fortunate for both myself and my students. Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

I’m currently a graduate student in philosophy at a major public institution. I teach two courses of around 60 students each in the fall and the spring semester, in addition to coursework and all that. I have found it very manageable, but only because I do not assign essays apart from mini-essays on the two tests. Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
Reply to  Grad Student
5 years ago

This is exactly my experience as well. Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  Another Grad Student
5 years ago

Did we just become best friends?Report

Mary
Mary
5 years ago

This is the usual size in Australia at a good public university (50-80 students). In fact, anything less would be regarded as problematic. It just means that you can’t assign more than a mid-term and a final and try to get your research done outside of the grading periods. I believe it it similar in Canada.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
5 years ago

At the University of British Columbia, a public university (in Canada, obviously), class sizes in philosophy vary quite a bit, with 60–150 being typical for lower-level courses, and 20–30 more the norm for upper-level ones. I regularly teach classes of 65 of higher—at the moment I have two 80-student courses—but I’ve never been asked to do so without TA support. Although the exact numbers vary from term to term depending on enrolment, budget, and TA work supply, pretty much any course with more that 50 students or so will include TA support.

I don’t mind big classes when I have sufficient TA support. (If my TA hours were scaled up accordingly, I’d have no objection at all to my 80-student courses being 250-student courses.) But I would have an extremely difficult time teaching 130 students without TA support.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
5 years ago

Schools that allow class sizes to get that large (without TA support) have given up on students actually learning. The only way to deal with these class sizes is to grade assignments check/x (i.e., submitted or not), count attendance, and give multiple choice or short answer tests. There’s just no way to grade students on the quality of their work.

It’s pathetic, but if state governments want half the population to go to college, and funding is such as it is (in magnitude and allocation), then education at state schools will be pathetic. Knowing what I know, if I were on an admission or hiring committee, a degree from my school would count for practically nothing in my eyes.Report

Renee
Renee
5 years ago

Wow! I hope my dean doesn’t get wind of these huge classes you are all teaching!

At my state university, introductory philosophy courses are capped at 27-30 and the load for tenure-track faculty is 4-3 (usually one upper-level course, with 10-25 students, and 2-3 intros) but can be 3-3 if one elects to teach more intros that usual. We do not have TAs. We are primarily an undergraduate institution focused on student learning and student engagement. I always learn all of my students’ names (unless they are in the online courses I teach). We have only about 20 philosophy majors, so our biggest impact is via our service (gen ed and reqs for other majors) courses.

During a usual semester, I will have about 60 intro students. I required four, 3-4-page writing assignments, 6-8 online discussion posts (200 words each), 4 multiple choice online exams, multiple choice online reading quizzes, and a short-answer final. When I had fewer assignments (2 short papers and 2 objective exams), students complained. Now, it is too much work for me, so I am contemplating going back to just multiple choice exams, which I think ultimately would be a disservice to my students.

I also have a considerable service load, so the only scholarship I do happens in the summer (even though I frequently have service obligations, summer teaching (by choice), and new course prep in the summer too). Scholarship is required for promotion and tenure.

Our contingent faculty teach a 5-5 load and can easily have 150 students/semester. While they have no service or research requirements, simply keeping track of (and corresponding with) all those students is more of a challenge than the grading I think.

Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

State school 4/4, now capped at 33 or 25 for writing intensive. However, due to for-profit-competition/online I’m averaging about 20/per for the last few years. Some peak years I taught as many as 160 students per semester (higher caps then), no TAs of course throughout.

What interests me is my relative value to the institution. So as 4/4 for 30+ years at an average of around 30 students per class not counting about 25 summers of one class around the same, at an estimated average tuition of say 3K per year (well over 5K for many years though frozen for the last 8), I’ve generated somewhere around 11 million plus for my state for my service, while costing the state about 1.7 million in lifetime gross earnings (projected to a 65 retirement), though fringes added in probably push that to around 2.2. Still I’d say they got a bargain.

The colleagues here in this thread talking about larger numbers of students across a career makes a case for exploitation that transcends anything like my calculations for mine. Jeez. Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
5 years ago

I’ve not read the comments above.
But 150 students per semester without a TA sounds like an awful lot.
I used to teach 4/3 at a SLAC, but classes were always capped at 25 students, and were often much smaller than that.
There are ways to manage doing all the grading for the quantity of students in question, but only by refusing to give them a lot of writing — e.g. you can use clickers, multiple-choice tests and quizzes, online discussion boards, and then no more than a few short essay assignments. I guess there is also peer review, but this has never seemed to work for me. If you are okay with this approach (i.e., you don’t find it objectionable to teach philosophy in this way), and the department wouldn’t pressure you to do otherwise (i.e., they don’t expect you to teach and grade this many students *and* assign them substantial papers, essay exams, etc.), then you’ll make it work.Report

smj
smj
5 years ago

I’m at a state STEM university. We have no TAs. Our standard intro cap is 35, and 25 for upper level courses. We do occasionally offer a course with a cap of 70, but it counts as two courses for the person teaching it. We have a 2/2 load for tenure track faculty. Instructors and some tenured faculty teach more. We are getting pressured by the administration to increase “student contact hours,” i.e. teach more.

With a high teaching load, you have to reduce the amount of grading. Multiple choice exams are not optimal for teaching philosophy, but short answer questions can work. You definitely can’t assign papers if you have 150 students!Report