Programs Aim to Expose Students to Smaller Classes

It is often advertised that Stanford’s average class size is very small, and this is true: one-third of all undergraduate classes at Stanford have less than 10 students (572 classes out of 1568, according to the Stanford Common Data Set).

However, counting courses is not the most germane statistic for measuring the quality of an education. Because large classes have more students, a greater fraction of students will be enrolled in large courses than in small courses: far more students will experience one of the 78 courses which have more than 100 people at Stanford. There are many programs aimed at exposing students to the small class experience, three of which are the Sophomore College, the Overseas Seminar and the Introductory Seminar programs.

The aims of each of these programs are much the same: to create a smaller group of scholars who interact directly with a professor and who study a specific subject. Sophomore College is an intensive three-week seminar program with 12-14 students per class. It is held in the summer before a student’s sophomore year.

The Bing Overseas Studies Program’s Overseas Seminars are intensive three-week seminar programs, with 12-15 students per class. It is held in the summer quarter. The Introductory Seminars (or IntroSems) are small seminars with 5-16 students per class during the academic year, which take up a full quarter. Next year, incoming freshman will be required to take an Introductory Seminar for one quarter, but otherwise, students must apply for each of these programs.

The programs emphasize the intimate nature of seminar classes, and the closer student-faculty relationship which is thus possible within them. “Sophomore College remains one of the most popular undergraduate programs at Stanford because of the opportunity it provides for students to have an intensive seminar experience with a professor and a small group of peers before the academic year,” says Marvin Diogenes, the director of the program.

“The [Overseas] seminars complement the quarter-long programs, and provide an in-depth study of a particular location with a single faculty member,” remarked Robert Sinclair, the director of the Bing Overseas Studies Program.

As for IntroSems, as students have come to know them, Russell Berman, the Faculty Director, explained, “It’s an opportunity for close learning with a faculty member in small groups, so very much a different learning environment than the large lecture classes that many students take in their first and second years.”

The application processes for these programs are also very similar to each other, in that in all three programs, the professor who teaches the class, not an administrator, directly evaluates students to gauge their fit for the class, with essays and, in the case of the Overseas Seminar, possibly interviews.

Because these classes must be small, each of these programs must take applications and reject some of them. For example, there were 467 applications for 72 places for Overseas Seminar students for the summer of 2012. Specifically for the Istanbul Overseas Seminar, there were 15 places but 155 applications. Many IntroSems are also heavily oversubscribed.

One significant development for these application-only seminar classes will be the changes in the humanities requirements for incoming freshman class- the Introduction to Humanities program will be eliminated, replaced with a mandatory Introductory Seminar and new Thinking Matter seminars. When asked whether this would change the nature of the Introductory Seminar program, Berman said, “There are no specific plans to change [the program] structurally, but I do hope that we can expand the number and range of freshman seminars…. I’d like to experiment with coordination between Thinking Matters courses and seminars, where the subject is appropriate. That would mean, for example, an autumn or winter Thinking Matters course on some topic that would lead into subsequent seminars in the following quarter where the student could follow up on the ideas in the Thinking Matters course.”

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