It seems to be generally accepted among the administration at my University that large lecture classes are the most cost-effective way to serve increasing numbers of students with stagnant budgets. I can't necessarily disagree (putting aside questions of why we keep letting in more students if we aren't getting the funds to deal with them). But I've been thinking a lot lately about whether we distribute those large lecture classes across the curriculum in the most efficient way. By 'efficient', I mean in the sense of maximizing total educational 'output', given constraints.
The norm is to use large lectures for introductory classes, which are presumably taught via lecture anyway, and reserve the 'small' classes for upper-division classes, which are presumably conducted with more discussion and interaction (e.g., seminars)*. In fields like history, I can imagine that is an accurate description of the way courses are taught. But in economics, I don't think it is. Most upper-division econ classes are just as likely to be lecture-oriented as intro classes (with the exception, of course, of the classes taught by some particularly forward-thinking professors :-)). In that case, one could argue that the marginal cost (in terms of reduced learning) of large upper-division classes is no greater than the cost of large intro classes.
In fact, I would argue that the cost is potentially much lower for upper-division classes. Large classes require students to be much more responsible for their own education than small classes, in part because of the sheer physical size of the room. In a huge lecture hall, there is a much higher potential for distractions during class, whether in the form of classmates who are talking (because they don't think the professor can hear them), or their own multi-tasking (which is more tempting because the professor is unlikely to know whether someone is playing solitaire on a laptop or taking notes). It can also be more intimidating to approach a professor that likely doesn't know who you are. Add in the fact that these intro courses have a large number of students who are satisfying requirements, rather than being truly interested in the subject matter, and I really believe that many 18-year-olds are simply not emotionally and mentally equipped to take that kind of responsibility (no matter how much we would like them to be!), or at least, not as well-equipped as they will be a couple years later. And so the relative drop in their learning is likely to be larger than if we used the large lectures for upper-division courses serving older students who have self-selected into the subject matter.
Of course, this assumes that the upper-division courses are being taught primarily as lectures in the first place, and that a department serves enough upper-division students to fill large classes. But my guess is that in most institutions that have large classes to begin with, these conditions do hold, at least up to a point. Given the difference in FTEs in lower- versus upper-division classes, we obviously couldn't switch ALL the large sections to upper-division (I certainly don't think we could fill a 500-seat section of intermediate micro) but why don't we think harder about the wisdom of making ALL the large sections lower-division?
*Institutional note: in my department, 'large' is any class of 120 and up, and our upper-division courses are around 60. One could certainly argue that 60 is too large to be considered 'small' but that's a whole different issue.
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