12/07/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Let's Improve First-Year Courses for College Students

One of the many criticisms about the current fascination with massive open online courses, or MOOC"s, is that they fail to improve on a basic pedagogical problem that many universities face: the large size of lecture classes. Indeed, MOOC's exacerbate the problem by enrolling tens of thousands of students rather than just hundreds.

Much of that line of criticism about MOOC's, of course, comes from professors at traditional institutions who continue to teach large lecture classes themselves. They don't have much of a choice, they say. Universities need large intro-level lecture courses in some disciplines to subsidize smaller upper-division courses and graduate work in others.

"The reality is that English has been subsidizing chemistry as long as there has been chemistry," says Jane Wellman, the former executive director of the Delta Cost Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

Higher-ed economics has worked this way for decades, and we accept it as fact whenever presented with better ways to teach freshmen. The cross subsidies seem to win out every time over a better first-year experience for students because we can't figure out a new model to finance an institution. We know that the high-impact practices that deepen learning include first-year seminars and experiences, where students can get to better know faculty members at exactly the time when students are most at risk of transferring or dropping out.

It doesn't have to be this way.

A few weeks ago, at a conference on the future of higher education held at George Mason University, the topic of large introductory courses came up several times during a panel discussion on how to engage students and strengthen learning. As one audience member described a stimulating capstone experience for seniors, one of the panelists, Mills Kelly, asked why the university makes them wait four years to get it. Why can't large universities provide similar small-group learning experiences for freshmen? asked Kelly, who is director of the global-affairs program and a history professor at George Mason.

In many ways, first-year students need those intense, close encounters more than seniors do. Since the conference, I followed up on the idea with Kelly, who has won several teaching awards and is a former fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"It's about rejiggering the freshman curriculum to create excitement for learning," Kelly said. "The senior capstone course shouldn't just be one of 12 courses students take. It should be seven or eight of the courses they take. Students could become much better learners right from the start."

Most small undergraduate colleges offer such intimate experiences all four years. But such a structure is hard to scale at large public colleges and universities, where eight in 10 American undergraduate students are enrolled.

In the spirit of "flipping the classroom,' I call his suggestion "flipping the curriculum." It would call for small classes in the freshman and senior years and larger classes for sophomores and particularly for juniors. The profit that the university makes right now on introductory classes would remain, but just shift to the junior year.

Such a change wouldn't work in all disciplines, of course. And in other departments, faculty would probably object because it would mean redesigning their upper-level courses to deal with grading larger classes. But Kelly maintains that "if the overall goal is to have good teaching, who cares what the faculty think?"

If large universities fail to improve their first-year courses, they might just find themselves out of the business of education for the first two years of college. One in three students today transfers from one college to another before earning a degree. Students are less brand loyal than ever before. Many of them are transferring to community colleges, which are not only less expensive but also have long focused on the first two years of college.

That is why students from upper-middle-class and affluent families are increasingly choosing community colleges over four-year institutions from the start. A survey by Sallie Mae, the student-loan company, found that 23 percent of students from households earning $100,000 a year or more attended community colleges in 2011-12, up from 12 percent three years earlier.

If large four-year colleges just continue to offer excuses about the financial reasons they can't improve first-year courses instead of concerning themselves with the pedagogical issues, they might not have to worry much longer about the problem at all -- because they won't have any of those students, anyway.