Institutional Analytics Blog

Aiming for optimum resource allocation? Prevent unintentionally small classes.

Ensure small classes provide benefits to students, and are not the result of low enrollment

By Taylor Holubar

Small classes can be a strong influence in student and faculty satisfaction, as well as a critical factor in national rankings, but not all small classes are designed to be small.

One-quarter of all classes have fewer than 10 students.

Analysis of Academic Performance Solutions data found that 54% of classes with fewer than 10 students are actually that size due to low enrollment and could accommodate more students.

Almost a Quarter of Sections Have Fewer Than 10 Students

These classes represent a huge investment in instructional capacity. As an APS dedicated consultant, I work with colleges and universities across the country to embed data in resource allocation decisions. Here are two strategies I recommend to monitor and combat unintentionally small classes.

Avoid the carry-over effect

Many colleges and universities simply carry over the same roster of classes from year to year, possibly with a few additions of new electives—but without looking critically at whether they're offering the right mix of courses for current demand. Very small courses represent a large investment—so they’re a particularly meaningful segment to reevaluate.

To combat the unintentional increase in small electives courses I recommend creating a department-by-department (or even course prefix-by-course prefix) spreadsheet of sections with fewer than 10 students enrolled. Share this report with department or program leaders and invite them to provide feedback on why the section was offered despite the low enrollment.

Some especially compelling reasons include pedagogical considerations (e.g., an upper-level seminar for majors), student credit needs for graduation, or the launch of a new program where enrollment is expected to increase over time. If there wasn’t a specific reason to offer the section, solicit unit leadership’s thoughts on what changes should be made, such as redesigning a syllabus, increasing marketing efforts, or offering a course less frequently. This sort of consultative discussion helps ensure that faculty feel enfranchised in any decisions made about the sections they teach.

Find opportunities to shift capacity based on demand

In cases where there isn't a concern about an overabundance of small classes, there may still be needs to adjust offerings based on unforeseen changes in expected capacity or demand.

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For example, if an instructor unexpectedly becomes unavailable due to a serious illness, or after winning a major grant, the person responsible for course planning and instructor assignments may need to reassign an existing instructor from another course. But how do you ensure that reassignment has the smallest impact on students?

One approach is to find classes that have had the smallest number of students enrolled in previous terms.In particular, I recommend focusing on low-enrollment sections where the maximum enrollment capacity is set substantially higher. In other words, focus on sections where a small percentage of available seats have been used, since these are lower-demand courses and cancellation will likely impact a smaller set number of students.

Colleges and universities must balance meeting student needs and promoting success against the imperative to make the best possible use of resources. With instructor salaries making up the bulk of departmental costs, small classes represent a substantial investment. These strategies can help ensure each small class is designed to provide benefits to students, and not the result of unintentionally low enrollment.

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