College lecture classes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Strategies for selecting the best section depend heavily on the type of format. This page reviews the main formats.
Classification based on size
Based on size, classes can be divided into two broad categories:
- Large lecture class (60+ students), typically taught by a senior professor, with smaller recitation sections run by TAs.
- Small or mid-sized class (10-50 students) that may be taught by a graduate student, adjunct, post-doc, or tenure-track or tenured faculty. In some cases, the problem sessions and office hours may be held by the instructor, and in other cases, by a TA specifically assigned to the course.
In some cases, the same course, with the same course number, is offered in different sections. Sometimes, multiple sections are offered during the same academic term, or during different academic terms within a given year. The case of multiple sections during the same academic term is interesting. Universities differ in the level of coordination between the different sections.
- No coordination at all: Instructors are free to assign their own text, examinations, and course structure, subject to some very loose guideline. This is often seen for upper division courses in many universities, such as the mathematics department at University of California at Berkeley.
- Coordination only for broad syllabus: The textbook and syllabus are pre-determined, but instructors are given flexibility to make minor deviations, choose the pace of coverage, assign their own homework, grading policy, and tests, and assign final grades by themselves. This is seen, for instance, for most of the mathematics courses taught at the University of Chicago.
- Common final test: Instructors are given a syllabus and text to follow, and are given flexibility in their pace of coverage, but their students are tested at the end based on a common final test, with instructors grading each other's tests.
- Common homeworks: Instructors are given a detailed syllabus with rigid guidelines on pacing. Homeworks are common, so all instructors need to cover material at the appropriate pace so that all students can do the assigned homeworks.
Relevance to course selection
- Our sample of investigation of large classes has been restricted mainly to science classes. Most of the people we've talked to have not found the lecture experience for large class sizes to be valuable, and found that self-study or watching videos was a superior substitute to going to class. This may be partly due to selection bias in the people we've talked to, and partly because large classes are typically chosen for introductory courses, where students already have some prior knowledge of the material. See the comments here for a sample of people's thoughts on large introductory science classes. This is an argument against taking large science classes, with the caveats:
- If you already know the material, the classes may be easy sources of good grades and quick ways to meet requirements.
- It may be the case that the structure of the course is very good, so taking the course is worthwhile despite class attendance not having much marginal value. However, it's likely that similar materials are available for free on Open CourseWare or elsewhere.
- For the same overall university size, a larger number of small classes means that there is likely to be a larger range of variation, so that with careful selection, you are likely to be able to get better teachers and better course experiences, even with the same average quality of instruction.
- For multi-sectioned courses, the less rigid the coordination between different sections, the greater the likely variation, and the greater the importance of selecting a good instructor.