The professors at Butler love to teach and our size offers a unique opportunity to work closely with students in small classes and pursue research with the facilities of a large university.
At every level of education, there is discussion about the importance of small class sizes. Butler is no exception. Our average class has twenty students, and we have an 11:1 student to faculty ratio. So why is this valuable? The best response comes from one of our own faculty members, Marshall Gregory, the Harry Ice Professor-English, liberal education, and pedagogy. He believes there are six key reasons why smaller is better.
When a professor cannot make eye contact with a student, the student can "hide" within the crowd. When they hide, they are not concentrating on the task at hand. When professors and students can make eye contact, students feel connected to classroom events and supported in their learning, both of which make learning more enjoyable and more productive.
Professors often engage students in conversations about various issues. When a professor asks questions of the class, the purpose is not to allow a couple of students to show how much they know. Giving students classroom opportunities to articulate new views as they are shaping them in their minds is a powerful way of letting both the student and the professor assess the extent to those views are well understood and whether they are taking solid shape or not. In addition, classroom discussion is an important form of social interaction that creates an air of sociability supportive of students' trial-and-error efforts to make new ideas their own.
III. Creating a secure environment.
Much of the best education, comes from trial-and-error and Whether we are learning to make pottery, make music, make a three-point basket, or make a speech, all learning starts out clumsily and gets better over time because the learner is willing to practice. This means that classrooms have to offer a safe environment that allows students to voice their opinions and work on their practicing without fear. Such environments can only be created in small classrooms. In large classrooms students do not feel supported; they feel anonymous or ignored. The creation of a trusting and supportive environment in which professors and students engage in mutual teaching and learning is one of the most powerful aids to learning produced by small classrooms.
IV. Encouraging the ability to focus on complicated topics over time.
Smaller classes force students to concentrate on complex problems for a lengthy period of time because, in the intimacy of the small classroom, the student who is not engaged is conspicuous both to himself or herself, conspicuous to the other students, and conspicuous to the professor. The social pressure and self-scrutiny that keep students concentrating on analytical tasks emerges within the dynamics of small classrooms but not in large ones.
The skill of learning how to pay prolonged analytical attention to the component parts of complex structures-whether these complex structures are mathematical proofs, Renaissance sonnets, scientific hypotheses, psychological theories, accounting spread sheets, or the next complex task is something that the brain must be trained do. It is one of the key attributes of a highly educated mind. In the work force, most jobs require people to sustain analytical focus on complex problems. Smaller college courses teach people to do this. In a world filled with distractions and the necessity of multi-tasking, the ability to focus becomes even more important.
V. The difference between multiple choice and essay questions.
Almost everyone finds a multiple choice exam easier than a "blue book" exam filled with essay questions. Why? Essay exams that require the linguistically precise formulation of ideas, that invite students to attempt nuanced expressions, and that test students' abilities to see subtle implications and to follow up on them are harder to take. They are also more powerful because they force students to exercise and deploy more cognitive and intellectual resources. Written exams also take more time, energy, and thoughtfulness on the part of the professor to grade, and can only be given by professors who enjoy the advantage of small classes.
VI. Students are human.
As such, they are developing organisms, not computers that can be programmed or machines that can be predicted. What students "get" one day they may seem to "lose" the very next day. More often than not, the acquisition of developmental skills presents itself as a herky-jerky, three-steps-forward-and-two-steps-back progress. Large classrooms offer few interactions of the kind that allow teachers to note their students' learning movements, and frustrate professors' ability to provide individual support for their students.
Butler's small teacher-to-student ratio is neither a trivial adjunct to exceptional student learning nor a discretionary luxury. It is a distinctive context for human development, which our graduates will continue to utilize for the rest of their lives as they move into the non-academic contexts of political, civic, professional, and domestic life.
The Butler education is more expensive than many others because the only way to make what we do more efficient is to have larger class sizes, or fewer faculty, or less support for students. Giving our students access to talented teachers and experienced staff members is key to how we help our students develop and prepare for the rest of their lives. We will never sacrifice quality.
For more details about our faculty and their philosophy on education, please visit http://www.butler.edu/provost/about-our-faculty/.