It’s the first day of the quarter and as students sit in the middle of a lecture hall filled with up to 180 others, the English professor announces that all tests, which have previously been essay exams, will now be conducted solely on scantrons, due to class size.
While most students are pleased by this announcement, the Cal Poly English department is left cringing. They know this increase in class size is proving detrimental to students who hope to pass the Graduation Writing Requirement (GWR) in the future.
The GWR, which is required for students of all majors, is meant to ensure students enter the workforce with a well-rounded set of skills, and is mandated by the state for graduation at all California public universities. It may be fulfilled in one of two ways: by passing either the Writing Proficiency Exam (WPE) or an approved upper-division course, which includes an essay exam to demonstrate writing proficiency. Though many students opt to take the exam without any instruction, those wishing to improve their writing skills may enroll in an upper-division English class to fulfill the requirement.
For the past few years, class sizes have increased in an effort to save money, but to the detriment of students, English Department Chair Kathryn Rummell said. This increase has been especially prevalent in lower-level writing courses, preventing students from succeeding later on in their GWR classes and exams, she said.
“The C1-level classes have increased to 120 to 180 students,” Rummell said. “Though those don’t grant GWR credit, students therefore might be less prepared to pass the GWR when they take 300 level classes.”
It is widely acknowledged in the English department that smaller classes are preferred, Rummell said.
“There are lots and lots of professional studies done in the field of composition that show that smaller classes help students perform better in writing classes,” Rummell said.
The English department has traditionally fought initiatives to expand class sizes, holding that catering to more students is not worth lowering the quality of education, English professor David Kann said.
“There’s been pressure on and off to raise the size of the classes again,” Kann said. “We’ve been fairly successful in holding the line and they’re still a bit too large.”
Thirty sections of classes fulfilling the GWR requirement were offered this quarter. Most of those classes fall between 25 and 30 students, in an attempt to follow the guidelines suggested for university English departments by the Association of Departments of English and the National Council of Teachers of English. These guidelines ask that writing-intensive classes be held at 20 students and discussion classes at 25. However, according to Cal Poly Plan A Student Schedule (PASS), 12 of the 30 sections that qualify for GWR currently have 30 or more students enrolled.
This seems like a relatively small number, but personal attention is crucial in a writing-intensive course for both the students and the instructors, according to English lecturer Sari Pinto.
“People do not write as much in big classes, because there’s simply no way to process all that writing,” Pinto said.
The reasons behind these larger classes lie in an effort to cut costs and make more seats available for more students to enroll. This, however, is a balance of quality versus quantity.
“It’s one thing to address the students’ needs in terms of having to get the class, but it’s another thing to address the educational process for the students that are presently in the class — I can’t let that fall apart,” Kann said.
While it may not be a high-profile problem, English department faculty members have had this issue on their minds for years.
“Writing class sizes are too big at Cal Poly and have been for a long time,” Pinto said.
Though this issue has been prevalent for years, there are no current plans to make changes. Right now, instructors are simply focusing on providing the best education possible for the number of students they have.
“We are in the job of educating students, not passing them through the system as quickly as we possibly can,” Kann said.