The new science of measuring instructional capacity

Moving beyond untested assumptions toward actionable information about the student and faculty experience

By Alexa Silverman

In the decades before the Great Recession, university leaders made decisions in the context of steady, across-the-board growth. Deans and department chairs could set the course schedule by making small adjustments based on increased enrollments. Budgets, including faculty lines, remained mostly the same from year to year, with minor additions as departments grew and brought in more tuition funding.

This incremental growth led to the development of accepted, but typically untested, targets for course enrollments and faculty workloads. These metrics were designed to reflect long-held quality standards and the assumption that adding resources was the only way to maintain or improve quality.

Many of these measures were built into rankings like US News and World Report, despite minimal pedagogical research on optimal class sizes, course loads, or student-to-faculty ratios. They are also largely based on averages of course sizes, student-to-faculty ratio, and so on that provided enough information in a time of constant growth but lack nuance about the range of student and faculty experiences within academic departments.

Today, the landscape of higher education has changed. Most public institutions feel that past levels of state and federal funding are no longer a guarantee, requiring them to become more tuition-dependent. Meanwhile, private universities’ discount rates are at an all-time high as they race to compete. And as students bring in more and more credit from a wider variety of sources, enrollment is harder to predict, especially at the individual course level. As a result, students face increasing costs and competition for popular majors and critical courses.

At the same time, faculty are under pressure to accommodate larger class sizes and increasing workloads. Universities are unable to keep up with rising costs, but still forced to turn away students in over-capacity programs. To remain sustainable in the face of change, universities must stop “managing to averages” and move toward actionable measures of quality that recognize disciplinary differences and create flexibility to accommodate student need.

For example, student-to-faculty ratio is widely used by accreditors, university rankings, and institutional leaders as a measure of quality. A lower ratio suggests that students have more face-to-face interaction with faculty. But student-to-faculty ratios can mask high numbers of research-only faculty who supplement teaching with widespread adjunct hires or graduate assistants, especially in critical first-year courses. Institutions should examine the percentage of students in each class size and the size of first-year courses to truly understand the student experience, and the areas where adding more faculty lines will have the highest impact.

The chart below illustrates eight more examples of metrics and myths where our understanding must evolve to reflect the new realities of higher education and the everyday experiences of students and faculty. Starting from these new metrics, institutions can more flexibly address volatile enrollment and ensure course availability, reasonable faculty workloads, and student success.

New Metrics for Understanding Instructional Capacity

Old Analyses

Key benchmarks you should review before discussing class size

The conversation around class size is becoming increasingly important to academic planning—covering everything from classroom availability, faculty workload, and department spending. This latest excerpt from our Benchmarking Insight Report helps academic leaders understand key indicators for class size variation.

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