I think that our students are overextended.
In contrast to most comparable institutions like Princeton and Dartmouth, students here are expected to take the equivalent of five three-credit courses each semester to graduate in four years. A lot of our students have advanced placement credit and can thus take four courses for one or more semesters. But the standard load has been five classes a semester as long as I’ve been here. I really think that the undergraduate experience would be richer if we could reconfigure the curriculum so that the standard course load was four a semester. There are several reasons.
First, I think that students will learn more if they are juggling four sets of papers, four midterms, and four final exams rather than five. The first week of March, for example, can be a little crazy around here, as students attempt to complete a bunch of midterm exams, keep up with the reading, and fulfill other course requirements in five different classes. I often wonder whether we would get stronger performances out of them if they focused their effort on slightly fewer assignments. A little less quantity might translate into a lot more quality.
Second, all of our students did not have the same opportunity to take advanced placement classes and tests in high school. Higher quality high schools, which often are located in wealthier areas, tend to provide more advanced placement options to their students. As a result, the students from the most privileged educational and economic backgrounds tend to arrive at W&M with more advanced placement credit, and thus are less likely to have to take five classes every semester they are at the College. The costs of the five-course practice, in other words, may fall disproportionately on exactly those students who are least prepared to deal with it.
Third, by reducing the standard student course load from five classes to four a semester, we probably will be able to lower class sizes somewhat throughout the curriculum without substantially increasing the size of the faculty. I know that the best research indicates that students can learn in large classes, as well as small ones. But as the graduate of a small liberal arts college (which by the way expected four classes a semester from students) and a professor who originally was drawn to W&M because of its long tradition of close professional relationships between faculty and students, I strongly prefer classes of 25-30 or even smaller. Reconfiguring the curriculum so that students take four courses per semester would help us hold class sizes down.
I know that implementing this proposal would require significant changes to concentration requirements across the College and potentially some alterations to the general education requirements. Obviously, we would need to increase topic coverage and workloads within individual classes. After all, the goal here is not to reduce the intellectual demands on our students, but rather to concentrate them in four rather than five classes. We also would need to give careful consideration to whether science classes with three-hour labs should be treated the same as social science or humanities courses that only involve three fifty-minute sessions a week. But I think that the educational and personal benefits that would be created for students and faculty alike would make the effort well worth it. The change would make the W&M experience stronger and better – and wouldn’t require a large infusion of new funds.