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Approach to Teaching Large Classes:
Know your students

Who are the Students?

The demographics of the Fall 2005 freshman class typify a large state-supported urban university. 40% of our enrolled students were male and 60% were female, which is comparable to other colleges and universities as well as to postgraduate and professional education. The average SAT-I for all admitted freshman is 1091; the high school grade point average is 3.30. The majority of these students were enrolled in the College of Humanities and Sciences (2,195 or 62%), with the School of Arts (651 or 18%), Business (364 or 10%), and Engineering (216 or 6%). VCU student body is diverse on many measures, one of which is the race/ethnicity profile:

African American 19%
Asian 12%
Hispanic 3%
Native American 1%
International 3%
White 57%
Not reported 5%
  • Undergraduate Student Body
    • Undergraduate students, at 18,691, constitute 62% of the total of 29,349 students.             
    • The vast majority of the student body will be taking survey or introductory classes which are likely to be very large classes (75-350 students). 
    • Approximately one-third of students will be part time. 
    • Most undergraduate students fall into the 19-24 age range, though a group almost the size of the freshmen class are 18 or under.
    • Approximately 1,200 undergraduate students are over the age of 30, many of them approaching college for the first time and most of them part-time. 
    • The average student is more likely to be older and part time than in traditional and non-urban colleges and universities.
    • The range of talent for traditional academic work among VCU students is dramatically wide. 
    • Students are reviewed for admission primarily based on their high school record and SAT scores or their prior college coursework.
    • Approximately 12% of the class will enter on a conditional basis.
      • These students must enroll in VCU 101 and 102,
      • May take no more than 14 semester hours, must participate in supplemental instruction and tutorials
      • Must meet with their academic advisor in the College Success Program on a regular basis
  • Graduate and Professional Student Body
    • Graduate students not deemed first-professional constitute 25% of the student body (7270 individuals). 
    • Most graduate students fall among the three age groups, 19-24, 25-29 (the largest group), and 30-39.    
    • Large classes are not limited to undergraduate courses, as some of the core graduate courses in the basic sciences on the MCV campus may have 40 to 50 or more students. 
    • A higher percentage of students in the first professional schools are non-resident (out-of-state) than in the wider student body.

Incoming Class 2006

In Fall 2006, most of the entering class will have been born in 1988.  They may not remember the first Iraq war at all.  Most of them were seventh-graders when airplanes hit the Twin Towers in New York.  Many—perhaps most—of them have watched television or movies for many more hours than they have read books for pleasure.  Perhaps more important in shaping the attitudes students bring to learning are the SOLS.  The entering class of 2006 will be only the third class to have their high school graduation depend on passing SOLS.  Informal student reports suggest that the intensity with which teachers are teaching to the SOLS has given students a rather narrow sense of what learning is.  They have naïve notions about “facts” and overmuch confidence in them, which is not new but is more rigidly ingrained in their thinking.

  • Where are students come from
    • Approximately, 48% of upper-division students come into VCU from the community college system. 
      • In fact, VCU welcomes applications from Virginia community college students and Richard Bland College students who have earned an associates degree.
      • Students holding these degrees will have junior standing and will be considered to have met all lower-division general education requirements with the exception of certain lower-level and upper-level program requirements which apply to all students.
    • In fall 2005, about 88% of the undergraduates were from in state.
      • Many come from high schools in the most populous areas of Virginia, from the Interstate 95-North corridor and from the Interstate 64-East corridor.
      • VCU also attracts students who come from abroad to study at VCU (3% of the fall 2005 freshmen).

Working Students

Many VCU students are not only students but also wageworkers.  A high percentage of students work while they are at university as well as during university vacations.  Some of them attempt full-time jobs and full-time course loads.  Neither they nor, one supposes, their parents (nor spouses or children) have much idea of the work of studying the university professors expect.  Generally, when a student takes a full-time course-load of fifteen hours (usually five classes of three credits each), professors expect students to do two hours of work outside of class for every hour in class.  In other words, a full-time class load should or could take forty-five hours a week.  Clearly, being a university student is a full-time job. Wider endorsement by faculty of sensible course loads might help students to perform better and stay healthier, mentally and physically. 

  • Balancing Work and School
    • For student loan purposes, a student taking twelve hours of classes is deemed to be a full-time student
    • Some students do not drop courses they have stopped attending or are failing because
    • There are financial incentives to take course overloads—tuition is the same for twelve to nineteen hours of coursework.
  • Challenges faced by working students
    • Students who work more than twenty hours a week and take fifteen or even twelve hours of course-work at the same time are overworked. 
    • They settle for lower grades, short of failing, because they are too exhausted to do otherwise. 
    • Despite students’ best efforts to set up a reasonable work schedule, students may find themselves whipsawed by employers.
    • Professors must strike a balance on the one side between resisting students’ efforts to reduce the amount of work and the level of sophistication ideally required for decent grades, and on the other, making it possible for the students VCU attracts to succeed in earning degrees. 
    • Encouraging them to think beyond minutiae, to theorize beyond the narrow instance, to test their logic and their learning—that is valuable for them even if they cannot follow through while they are in your classes.
    • Professors and students also benefit from teaching and learning in an institution where so many students must work and where most are over the age of 22. 
    • VCU students are serious students, at least within the limits of talent and time they have to expend on educating themselves.
    • The maturity of older and working students rubs off on many of the younger ones. 
    • Students who pay all or much of their way through university often become quite intense about their school work as they grow into their twenties or beyond. 

In summary, SOLS have influenced student’s attitudes toward learning; the range of intellectual ability in the student body is very wide; many VCU students are part time and are wage working; many students will have difficulty in finishing their degree for various reasons.  All of these factors may affect how students navigate through the university milieu and how they respond to the learning environment of a large class.

Appendix F - VCU Student Demographics, Fall 2005 Census II

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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