In response to concern over increased enrolment, the Faculty of Arts & Science has made a proposal to require all incoming first-year students to take a foundational seminar course. This proposal is long overdue and should be implemented. Large class sizes are an unfortunate hallmark of the undergraduate U of T experience.

I recall my first day at U of T, when I walked into Convocation Hall for an introductory sociology class with 1,500 fellow classmates — a crowd over three times as large as my entire high school. I later reviewed ACORN and realized that over half of my classes would be be at Convocation Hall — a ‘classroom’ that can hold over 1,000 students without any tables to put your notebook on.

Not a single one of my first-year classes had less than 400 students. I felt completely lost, but this is normal at U of T. A 2012 study of the faculty’s first-year class sizes from 2006–2011 found that over half had over 200 students.

Stronger community

These enormous first-year classes limit opportunities to interact with the professor and ask questions, especially since first years may not feel comfortable taking advantage of office hours. It should come as no surprise, with professors who cannot learn your name or recognize you, that many U of T students complain of feeling like ‘just a number’ in their first year — a crucial time to form an identity on campus. 

Huge class sizes also complicate the ability to make connections with peers, as these limited opportunities for in-class discussions and activities. It is also unlikely that you will sit next to or even see the same person twice over the course of a semester.

Smaller class sizes provide face-to-face opportunities to build relationships with professors and peers to reduce the intimidation factor and help smoothly transition to a university education. It allows you to feel as though there is a community that has your back, or at the very least, is going through this with you.

While U of T currently offers first-year seminars through the First Year Foundation and College One programs, these programs are highly competitive and often unrelated to a student’s program of study. This can deter students from voluntarily enrolling.

Victoria College is the only college that requires students to take a first-year seminar course. According to its website, participation allows students “to get to know fellow classmates and professors, engage in interactive academic discussions, and develop strong written, oral and teamwork skills.” All colleges should follow Victoria’s lead, since these experiences are essential for a meaningful and successful academic career. The university should also design a mandatory requirement that helps students complete their programs of study.

Better academic performance

My first-year experience almost caused me to leave U of T. It seemed unreasonable to pay one of the country’s highest tuition fees, only to sit down with 1,000 others and furiously copy down lecture slides, without any in-class engagement to help understand the material.

I was told by many that it gets better after first year. So I stayed, and while it did get better, my average class size was still around 100–200 students in second year. It was not until my third year that I was in a class small enough that actual discussion was possible. It was refreshing: I had been trained since that first day to sit quietly and absorb every word my professor said, rather than actively participate in my own learning.

Indeed, large classes inhibit students from engaging in meaningful participation and engagement with the material through debate and discussion. But this is a vital way for students to practice their critical thinking skills and learn to consider new ideas. Large classes instead encourage a passive learning style by which students are not required to critically engage with the material, which is contrary to what is expected from them in their assignments and tests.

In smaller classes, I was able to better absorb the material and recall  discussions I had in class during tests and assignments because I could ask questions when they popped up and flesh out ideas. This drastically improved my grades and enjoyment of the class.

The right step forward

Third year is very late to finally experience a meaningful learning environment. This is especially true if you are a student who is thinking about going to graduate school and hopes that there is a professor out there who remembers you well enough to write you a reference letter.

I understand that large class sizes are inevitable at the largest university in Canada. However, other universities with large student populations, such as the University of British Columbia, are able to ensure that almost half of first-year and second-year classes have less than 100 students.

The faculty’s initiative in taking this much needed step toward mandatory first-year seminar courses is uplifting. It will invest in a more supportive learning environment and undoubtedly improve the quality of education that U of T undergraduates receive.

Yasaman Mohaddes is a fourth-year Political Science and Sociology student at St. Michael’s College.