University News

Small classes offer unique experience

With fewer than five students, opportunities for discussion and tailored curriculum

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Classes with five or fewer students may offer students flexibility and opportunities to build close relationships with faculty members and peers.

The few students who have taken a course with Dore Levy, professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies, might be easily identifiable around campus — they’re the ones enjoying Chinese literature under a flowering cherry tree.

Levy usually teaches small classes that breed their own distinctive cultures. In her instruction, she emphasizes the natural imagery within Chinese poetry, encouraging students to experience the language physically. “If you see someone lying under a tree and looking up, they’ve studied with me,” she said.

Small courses may fly under the radar, but hundreds of classes at the University have five or fewer students each semester — or enrollments so low they get cancelled.

Three-hundred seventy-three classes offered this semester landed at or below a five-student threshold, and 195 of these classes were cancelled, according to data from the University registrar. Those numbers are up from last semester, when 322 classes drew five students or fewer, and 153 of these classes were discontinued. The statistics encompass undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, wrote Karey Majka, assistant registrar for operations management, in an email to The Herald.

This semester, the departments of political science, history and biology had the highest number of courses eliciting five or fewer student registrations — 23, 22 and 19, respectively, according to the data.

Laia Darder Estevez, teaching associate in language studies, said all the classes she has taught in Catalan comprised fewer than five students.

The advantage of a small class lies in the professor’s ability to get to know students’ skill sets and adjust teaching methods to accommodate for the students, Darder said. Smaller enrollments are particularly suited to language classes because students have more time to speak in class and are less likely to feel self-conscious about participating, Darder added.

But bigger classes present a wider range of perspectives for students, she said.

Though small classes allow her to focus on topics that interest her students, “I don’t like my students deciding what they learn,” Darder said, adding that too much agency removes the novelty of learning.

“You get so carried away with having fun you forget what time it is,” Darder said.

The Catalan classes have low enrollments because the language lacks visibility, Darder explained. But she added that taking a Catalan class is particularly relevant to students wishing to study abroad in Barcelona.

Levy said she is teaching two classes this semester with four or fewer students each.

“Since the class is small, we are well aware of how everybody is doing,” Levy said.

Small classes occur when the subject is part of an uncommon field of study or if the class deals with very specialized material, Levy said. When she came to Brown, she was the only professor teaching Asian literature, but today so many choices exist that people are able to specialize according to their interests, she said.

With small classes, “the atmosphere is much more intimate,” Levy said. Because her classes are small, Levy conducts class in her office. “I can just stand up and pull one of the dictionaries out of the bookcase,” she added.

Departments are more likely to advertise a class taught by new professors in order to increase their exposure to the undergraduate community, Levy said. She added that she has never tried to convince a student to take her courses, instead presenting them exactly as they are. “I do not hide what the pedagogy is,” Levy said. “I am very transparent about that.”

The Catalan class’ small size was an advantage because “from day one she started speaking to us in Catalan,” said Ellia Higuchi ’15. “You get so much more attention that way,” she added, noting that she was able to focus on her specific interests and got much more time to practice speaking, rather than just reading and writing.

The downside to a small class is that students can very easily fall behind if they miss class, Higuchi said. “That can be really stressful.”

Fang Guo ’17 said she had an introductory French section cancelled during shopping period this semester because too few students enrolled for the time slot. The Department of French Studies instead created a new section, forcing Guo to alter her schedule to accommodate the new time, she said.

David Elitzer ’17 is currently taking a two-person class, AWAS 1150: “The Art of Civilization: Artist, Image and Aesthetic in the First Cities,” with Postdoctoral Research Associate Karen Sonik. The class focuses on art theory and history in the context of the ancient urban world.

“It’s exactly the type of course I was looking for,” Elitzer said.

Though the course construction was well thought-out, the class’ size allows for “more wiggle room” in discussion topics, he said.

Elitzer said the class’ low enrollment creates a safe environment and facilitates discussion that is especially necessary for developing viewpoints on art theory.

“You put everything you have into class, and it’s fun,” Elitzer said.

One Comment

  1. Oleg Kissassky says:

    Small classes may be novel at Brown. But they are par for the course in many other colleges. Too many years with Ruth and an unproductive year with Chris have kept Brown provincial.

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