Bigger classes, fewer essays

Part 1 of 2

A professor’s decision to remove formal essays from his or her course sounds like a reason for students to celebrate.

But it may also be a sound wake-up call for those still under the impression that all is well with the state of post-secondary education in Ontario.

“Ontario is at the bottom end of funding,” said Queen’s Professor D.S. Parker, who replaced formal essays for his Latin American history course with in-class written assignments because his lecture class was too large.

“Queen’s has been doing its best by researching innovative things to do in big lectures, but it’s not the same,” he said.

Stacy Armstrong, ArtSci ’06, said at first it didn’t bother her that she doesn’t have to write a formal essay, but bemoaned the heavily weighted final exam that resulted.

“It sucks at exam time because the exam is weighted so heavily,” she said. “It’s not a reflection of what you know.”

Dr. Timothy Smith, undergraduate chair of history, said lecture classes have never been in such high demand.

“They are all full, and most of them have at least 50 or even 80 per cent more students than they would have 10 years ago,” Smith said. “Many students were unable to register in the courses they preferred.”

History lecture courses are available to history minors and non-history students, but history majors and medials must complete a certain number of lecture courses to satisfy their degree components.

Parker said the history department made a decision to keep numbers down in their seminar courses in response to tighter resources. These seminars are only available to history majors and medials.

“For history majors and medials, seminars are where we really train people rigorously,” Parker said. “Having to cut somewhere, we instead chose to let lecture courses go up [in size].”

Parker said the increased size of lecture classes makes it harder to assign formal essays, especially since the student to TA ratio is higher than ever.

“We have neither the money for enough TAs nor the available people,” Parker said. “Ensuring that TAs aren’t exploited is taken very seriously within the department.”

When examining the higher student to TA ratio, Smith cautioned about making sweeping generalizations about the decline in quality of education.

“I think that most professors are taking up the slack, doing more and more of the grading themselves,” he said. “I think that TAs are working harder than ever before.” Parker, explaining why his particular half-credit course was not assigned a formal essay, raised his concerns with plagiarism.

“The bigger the class, the harder it is to prevent attempts at plagiarism,” he said. “Nowadays it’s crazy to have an open topic in a lecture course,” he said.

Parker said plagiarism was also connected to under-funding because it is more likely to occur when the distance between professor and students increases.

“Students are more anonymous,” he said.

Formal essays are not the only part of history lecture courses to die off because of a lack of funding. Parker said tutorials are disappearing in upper-year courses as well.

“We haven’t cut back tutorials for first-year students because they need that guidance. But, the overall decline in tutorials in lecture courses has cut back on the quality of education,” he said.

Still, at the thought of not writing a formal essay, feelings of relief trump any doubts that exist among the students in Parker’s Latin American history course.

“I’m happy because I have lots of other essays in other classes,” said Leah Simeone, ArtSci ’06.

Simeone, however, also said second-year students may be at a disadvantage.

“I’m a firm believer that research helps students develop their skills,” she said. “It forces them to learn the material.” Tom Lee, ArtSci ’06, said not writing a formal essay is okay because he has so many other things to do, but the absence of an essay may change the way one might absorb the course material.

“Essays focus on specific topics, while the tests are more general knowledge,” he said.

Parker emphasized the role of a lecture course when discussing the quality of education he was providing.

“Is the educational experience diminished? To some degree yes, but there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “Lecture courses are designed primarily so we can get the information to you.”

Parker said history majors and medials develop the skills they need as historians within history seminar courses, and numbers must remain low in these courses.

“If a seminar course goes up from 20 students to 35, I consider that a huge difference in providing the individual help to students,” he said.

His Latin American lecture, however, has approximately 120 students.

“By keeping seminar classes small, I think the quality has been maintained for majors and medials,” Parker said. “But for history minors and non-history students who generally only take lecture courses, the education is diminished.”

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