UMBC’s average class size is reported as 20-49 students, but these statistics paint a picture that is drastically different than the actual experience of STEM majors at UMBC.
Since STEM courses don’t differ significantly for students until sophomore or junior year when students begin taking upper-level electives and labs, freshmen STEM majors take many of the same courses. For instance, every life science major is required to take introductory chemistry and biology classes. These classes are typically only taught by one professor each semester and the class sizes are consistently greater than 200 students.
Decreasing class sizes is not as simple as it may seem. Diana Hamilton, a general chemistry professor, explains, “Making the classes even smaller requires more lecturer capacity, which means longer hours for existing staff, or else more hires; more time scheduling capacity that will work with students’ and lecturers’ overall schedules; and more physical classroom capacity. These factors are all at a premium for the Chemistry Department and often across UMBC’s other general STEM courses.”
Of the aforementioned factors, the easiest to change may be hiring more general chemistry professors. Required core courses should be taught by multiple professors each semester so that students can learn more effectively.
The relationship between class size and student performance has been well-researched. Students do better and have a better attitude towards the subject when the class is smaller. If UMBC decreased the size of introductory classes and offered individualized attention, then more students would pass.
Hamilton continues, “not just in general chemistry, but across various large STEM courses at UMBC, we are constantly putting our heads together to figure out how to ameliorate the effects of our large class sizes, to get the most benefit for students. Small-group discussion strategies — that students seem to either love or hate — are a part of that.”
Discussion sections, which are usually taught by undergraduate or graduate teaching assistants, are often the place where students learn the most. If the lectures were also small, and the student experienced more focused attention from the professor, I believe grades would increase significantly.
Failing the first class you take in your chosen major is discouraging and can make students feel like they don’t belong in their field because they are not capable of succeeding in it. This initial self-doubt can be hard to dismiss and leads many STEM majors to switch majors.
Currently, the chemistry department is doing the best they can with the resources allocated towards them. While hiring more professors may not happen for several years, UMBC is in the process of improving STEM education with the construction of the new Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building. Hamilton said, “the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building has both new research lab space and new classroom space, the latter designed with active-learning modes in mind. So, departments may adjust both projects and courses as they see new opportunities in there.”
Decreasing the class size of introductory STEM courses benefits everyone. Students can learn the material more effectively. Professors won’t be burdened by managing hundreds of students and the university gets to produce more STEM degrees. UMBC is a leader in innovative education and the university needs to keep improving undergraduate education.