One Class, 80 Students: Econ 50’s Social Science Experiment

By Adam Kaiser and Jasjeet VirkTestTubes

College applicants are often drawn to Claremont McKenna for its outstanding liberal arts education, the accessibility of its professors, and its small intimate classroom settings. It stands to reason that smaller class sizes increase student involvement and help them gain a better understanding of the subject being taught in the class. Small classes form the backbone of CMC’s academic identity, which is why the students enrolled in Professor Eric Helland’s Principles of Economic Analysis course this semester were surprised to find themselves sharing a “classroom” with more than 80 of their peers.

This semester, the economics department was ill-equipped to satisfy the high demand for Principles (known to most as “Econ 50”) classes this semester. The unexpectedly high interest in introductory economics courses, large freshman class, loss of classroom availability due to construction, and administrative reluctance to hire adjunct professors combined to create the largest class at CMC in recent years.

Dean of Faculty Gregory Hess is confident that “Professor Helland will provide his students with a strong curriculum and an enriched learning environment, despite the large class size.” He believes that the new structure of this Econ 50 section mirrors its counterparts at other highly regarded institutions, specifically the introductory economics course taught at Harvard. In 2006, enrollment in Harvard’s sole section of the course — taught by Gregory Mankiw, author of the Principles textbook — skyrocketed 42 percent, resulting in a class size of over 900 students each year. Though 900-person classes are unrealistic at CMC, administrative arguments in favor of a scaled-down Harvard model tout the standardization of the experiences and grades of budding economics majors, students of the college’s most popular and competitive discipline.

Despite Helland’s best efforts, some of his students consider the class’s overpopulation detrimental. Roy Yu, CMC ‘13, finds it difficult to focus in the large classroom environment. “I feel as if I’m lost in the midst of a crowd,” says Yu, who thinks the congested class inhibits his professor’s teaching style. “The class is so big that Professor Helland can’t focus in on any one specific group of students when he explains important concepts,” affirms Shalni Pawa, CMC ‘13. Yet students vindicate their professor as eagerly as they rail against their class’s format. Though Austin Gomez, CMC ‘13, thinks Helland is “a great teacher,” he argues it is “impossible to keep 80 students engaged.”

Yet such complaints discount the fact that Helland’s 80-person class does not have a monopoly on Econ 50 — the department offers six other sections of Principles this semester, at an average class size of 20. Students interested in taking Econ 50 this semester could have opted either to enroll in another section (one 9:35 a.m. section is not filled to its cap) or simply to take the course next spring. Given this degree of competition among Econ 50 sections, students have little ground on which to criticize the class, in which they knowingly enrolled.

Nevertheless, the experimental class size does merit an examination of its appropriateness for CMC. Class lectures in overflowing auditoriums may be a mainstay of large universities, but CMC has tended toward smaller student-teacher ratios. Though CMC has opted to compromise personal attention to accommodate high demand, the decision to implement this class was neither rash nor shallow. The administration tends to agree that large class sizes should be reserved solely for introductory classes. Helland contends, “General classes such as Econ 50 can be much more effectively taught in large classroom settings than courses like econometrics, which require emphasis on critical thinking and a stronger student-relationship bond to be successful.” He also cites his accessibility during office hours, the high quality of student in-class participation, and the availability of “outstanding student tutors” as compensating for the class’s inherent lack of individualized attention.

Though thoroughly planned and properly executed, this 80-person class may set a precedent for CMC. Hess described Helland’s class as experimental, but the interesting question arises if the experiment goes well. The administration will have data to determine efficacy of the course after it is finished and students complete their evaluations. If Econ 50 can successfully be done with 80 students, will the administration follow a similar model for introductory psychology, government, and calculus courses? Larger classes may effectively reduce costs and allocate scare resources efficiently, but they challenge both CMC’s culture and brand. Students like Yu, Gomez, and Pawa value that culture, and if their concerns are not isolated, then this experiment may only run once.

Published with support from Generation Progress.

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