Part of my growth as a new professor is broadening my focus outward from the classes I teach to the degree curriculum and the department curriculum. The trick to this is the many constraints that a professor or a department faces. One of the most important constraints is the financial. While management and athletics are frequent targets of criticism by academics, I'm concerned about another trend. The number of young people attending college is at its highest and growing, having increased by approximately 5 million over the last decade to about 20 million. Larger numbers of students from less affluent backgrounds require more classes with less funding. Most campuses have a vigorous debate on the right proportions for buildings, athletics, and academics, but I think this demographic growth creates a fundamental cost pressure.
A simple model with only class size, faculty salary, and tuition points to larger class sizes and more classes as the way to reduce the costs per student graduated. The challenge is to increase class sizes without either eroding the student experience or the quality of life for faculty. My observation is that the amount of feedback I can give a student is going to shrink as the class size increases. For round numbers, assume I teach three classes and spend 10 hours a week on each of these. Further assume (very generously) that I have progressed to the point in my career where I can spend 4 hours a week on grading and feedback, with 4 hours a week in lecture and 2 hours a week on class administration. My classes with 20 students can each get 12 minutes per week of my attention focused on their work. When this number swells to say 100, I can promise my students less than three minutes per week of my attention. As a junior professor still preparing class materials the time I can spend grading is well less than this estimate.
Since feedback is considered one of the most important aspects of education, this trend disturbs me. I am experimenting with peer feedback and teaching assistant feedback and hope the same level of learning can be achieved. The evidence on the effectiveness of massively scaled peer feedback in online courses seems spotty but I haven't reviewed it closely. I can see however I will be unable to sustain the artisanal model of a single professor burning the midnight oil to carefully and closely grade papers as class sizes expand. My strategy now consists of using the specifications grading approach as well as peer feedback to amplify my grading time as much as possible.