Small class sizes all the rage for freshmen

By Justin Pope The Associated Press

NEW LONDON, Conn. – For first-year students, they are kicking around some heady questions: Is there such thing as absolute mathematical truth? Can a perfect circle exist? What if two plus two didn’t equal four?

The Connecticut College freshman seminar, like those at other schools, is built around an interdisciplinary topic – in this case it’s “infinity,” with readings from mathematicians, philosophers and poets.

Unlike most of the larger, more anonymous lectures where freshmen year is often spent, this class has only about a dozen students. There’s constant discussion, lots of teacher feedback, and a major year-end writing project.

Such courses have been around nearly a half-century, and longer by some definitions, but their popularity is surging. The number of colleges offering freshman seminars nearly doubled between 2000 and 2003 to about 25 percent, according to surveys of about 620 two- and four-year colleges by a University of South Carolina research center. Connecticut College launched its program this year, and other schools are expanding theirs.

Often, these popular courses are off the beaten academic path.

Offerings at Connecticut College include a course that takes on sports statistics and another on mysticism that looks at Madonna’s fascination with Kabbalah. Indiana University has offered “The Sur(Real) World of Reality TV.” Stanford offers an introductory seminar called “Comics: A Lively Art.”

Proponents say this type of learning is valuable, getting students excited intellectually and helping them quickly develop relationships with top professors – a key to the kind of engagement that a growing body of research shows keeps students on track to graduate.

“A really small class with discussion, that’s how I learn best,” said Kate Enman, a Connecticut College student from New York taking the infinity seminar. “This is by far my most intimate class.”

Experts say the quest to lure bright undergraduates partly explains why these programs are expanding; at competitive liberal arts schools like this one, freshman seminars are now so common that not having one might be conspicuous to prospective students.

Larger state universities also are expanding freshman seminars to stay attractive to those same students. At 50,000-student Ohio State, President Karen Holbrook instituted a freshman seminar program in 2003 as part of a broader first-year program. It began with 21 seminars the first year and is offering 54 this year, said program coordinator Rod Romesburg. About 600 students will take freshman seminar this year, though that’s only about 10 percent of the OSU class.

Some schools offer multiple seminars, but all of them have the same topic, like the “Leadership and Social Justice” course at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.

Others, such as Connecticut College, offer seminars that vary widely in content and structure (Williams College has a seminar in which students live together in the same dorm).

An intimate class with a top professor on a stimulating topic – could there be a more satisfying academic feast? Few would disagree that freshman seminars are what college is supposed to be about. Still, Stanley Katz, a Princeton scholar and longtime observer of curriculum issues, wonders if it is the best use of faculty.

“What we’re doing is investing very expensive faculty time teaching both small groups of students and teaching students in their first year of college,” he said.

“It’s so sexy to do freshman seminars and the response is so positive I think institutions are inevitably going to do it,” he said. “It’s gotten to be a kind of competitive thing, particularly for schools that are trying to drum up business.”