Student-faculty ratio promotes teaching innovations

Photo by John Nakano

The increasing student-faculty ratio continues to raise concerns about the quality of instruction students receive in the classroom. The student-faculty ratio has gone up from 18:1 to 24:1 since 1996.

“The impact of faculty on the increase student-faculty ratio happens in two ways. One is the class size will get bigger and the other is they’ll teach more classes,” said Dr. Donna Llewellyn, Associate Vice Provost for Learning Excellence and Director of the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL).

According to data from the Department of Institutional Research and Planning, the number of classes containing less than 40 students decreased by 43, while the number of classes containing over 40 students increased by 46 since 2006.

“I think if you go from a class size of 19 to 23, the effects are really negligible, which is what the institutional growth has been over the past few years,” said Vice Provost of Undergraduate Studies Colin Potts. “If you go from classes of 20 to 30 students to classes of 60 to 70 students, which is what’s happening in some of our majors, then that does affect the experience. Not necessarily worsens it, but it does change it.”

Potts observed that the faculty must change their curriculum to accommodate the larger class sizes.

“I teach the computer science ethics class, and you just can’t have a class discussion with that number of students,” Potts said. “If you insist on continuing to teach a class the way you really wanted to do it when you designed it, you’re not going to do a very good job and the students aren’t going to be served. I can’t just turn my back and say, ‘It’s tough, I’m a boutique instructor, I don’t do large scale classes’.”

Departments across campus are trying to combat this trend through a variety of methods.

“The good side is that once the class gets bigger, the students are forming a community of learners rather than relying solely on the instructor to be the front of all knowledge,” Llewellyn said. “To me, that’s a positive. We want students to learn from each other, to interact with each other…Once a class size gets bigger, doing that in an organized way that’s built into the curriculum is positive.”

“What you have to do is break classes into small discussions,” Potts said. “What we don’t want to do is for those subjects that are very problem oriented or case-based or discussion-based to turn them into lecture courses. By a lecture course, I really mean that students are sitting in rows up front and a professor is talking at them.”

Notably, technology has allowed the creation of these more conducive environments for learning.

“When I first heard about [PRS] clickers, I thought, ‘Well, what a stupid dehumanizing technique that is, you go to class, you’re not even talking now, you’re just pressing buttons. It’s like a TV remote control’,” Potts said.

However, Potts acknowledged how the Responseware systems could be effectively used.

“The real value is in…voting on an answer choice that’s right,” Potts said. “The professor can say, ‘Well, actually a third of you thought this, and it’s a very reasonable wrong answer and here’s why its a wrong answer’, and everyone feels like their personal question has been answered without any kind of stressed level.”

Other, more innovative approaches to conquer this higher SFR have been the implementation of problem-based learning (PBL) in engineering courses and the use of Twitter in one management class.


Problem-based learning, an approach used in medical school education, has been gaining momentum in engineering classes.

“I got the highest average scores on the first midterm that I’ve gotten in 10 years,” said Dr. Donald Webster, a CEE professor, who is one of the professors who implemented PBL in his fluids mechanics class. “It seems like this pedagogy of getting students to actively problem solve and actively think about them has dramatic effect on doing the problems and their ability to score well on the exams.”

“[In PBL], you present the analytical stuff, typically stuff you would work out on a board, in 10 minute bite sized pieces,” said Dr. Laurence Jacobs, Associate Dean of the CoE. “The students have to review them before class and in class…students [work] in teams…and they have a series of problems that are based on the lecture they did outside their class.”

“The content delivery is done outside and the hard work is done inside,” Llewellyn said.

“It has worked out extremely well. Students are very actively engaged – I have two of my grad students in the classroom with me, when the students raise their hand, we’re able to give them immediate feedback. It allows us to give them almost 1-on-1 tutoring in a classroom setting,” Webster said.

Students in the classroom also expressed appreciation for PBL.

“Student feedback has been far better than I imagined,” Webster said. “It has been overwhelmingly positive…Uniformly, they said they prefer because they have more control, if they miss a comment or miss a point, they can back it up very easily watch it again.


Management Professor of Practice Bill Todd, in his case-based Management 3150 class, faced the dilemma of limited classroom time for discussion.

“One of the comments [from surveys] was from non-native speakers,” Todd said. “You put so much emphasis on participation, yet we do not feel comfortable in our English skills. While we’re constructing our comment in our mind and by the time we feel comfortable with it, you’ve moved onto something else. And so that made me think, something else needed to happen.”

These concerns and an ever-growing size in the class’s section forced him to pioneer an innovative method of fostering discussion in the classroom — through the use of Twitter.

“We put up both screens with a live Twitter feed, #mgt3150,” Todd said. “The very first time we tried it, four students that never opened their mouth made very good comments. And they were non-native speakers.”

“The Twitter feed gives everyone an opportunity to share their thoughts,” said Melanie Holthaus, a fourth-year ISyE in the Principles of Management class. “It kind of sparks more discussion sometimes, based on what people are saying on the Twitter feed, and you can get kind of a more, ‘That’s a great idea. I can build off that’.”

Ultimately, whether or not these innovations can serve as permanent solutions to the rising ratio is unclear.

“I do fear we’re very close to the breaking point, if we’re not already there,” Jacobs said.