Popular classes have large enrollment rates, high expectations
February 5, 2018
At a university as large as this one, there are bound to be classes that are more popular than others, resulting in massive lectures with thousands of students led by few professors. What makes these classes so popular, however, is hardly discussed.
One of the classes with the highest enrollment rates on campus is an introductory statistics course called STAT 100. The class is taught by two professors. One professor, Ellen Fireman, has been at the University since 1983 when she was a graduate student. She has taught STAT 100 since the late ’90s and now teaches the online section of the class.
“(STAT 100) is about giving students the basic cognitive tool they need to understand the world we live in today, which is the age of information,” Fireman said. “(The course) is important in all areas of students’ lives, not just to help them with their career, or to help them in their next courses. In fact, I can’t think of an aspect of their lives that it wouldn’t help them with.”
Fireman compares the importance of knowing statistics with the importance of being able to read. She believes that the two are equally essential.
Karle Flanagan teaches the in-person section of STAT 100. She said the course is “meant to give students an introduction to statistics and help them… to survive in the world, because nowadays (people need to know statistics).”
Flanagan said having a large number of students in the class has turned out to be an advantage for students and professors alike. The large sample population — over 1700 students — allows the professors to collect data from the students and use that information to develop questions for the class exams or for lessons to teach concepts to students.
“The students have consistently said each semester that they really like looking at their own data because we can actually agree on a topic that we think is interesting,” Flanagan said.
Fireman said students are not hesitant to believe the data collected in class because they know how it’s being collected.
“It’s our own data, so we can trust it. So we can talk about things, even political issues, without having the kind of distrust that’s just ruining our society,” Fireman said.
Fireman said courses are sometimes popular because they are easy or fun. She said STAT 100 has that reputation.
“I want students to realize that the reason why we’re making it fun and as easy as possible is because (Flanagan and I) believe this is the most important thing they can learn,” Fireman said.
Flanagan said they put in a tremendous amount of work to make the course material understandable. She said they could make it difficult if they wanted to.
“That’s not our goal. Our goal isn’t to make the class difficult; our goal is to teach students statistics,” Flanagan said. “A lot of times I think that people get easy confused with having a lot of resources.”
If students do not understand the STAT 100 material, there are many ways they can get help. Both Flanagan and Fireman believe this is a main reason why students will do well in the course.
Danielle Sharpe, senior in LAS, took another one of the most popular classes on campus, ATMS 120, a class about severe and hazardous weather. As a transfer student, Sharpe had to fulfill a science general education credit, and her advisor recommended ATMS 120.
Eric Snodgrass taught Sharpe’s class, and Snodgrass’ high rating on the website RateMyProfessors.com influenced her to take the course. Sharpe was pleased to find she too enjoyed having him as a teacher thanks to his enthusiasm about the course subject.
Sharpe thinks that Snodgrass is a “legendary” professor at the University because students enjoy him so much.
Sharpe enjoyed the experiments performed the most. She feels the information she learned in ATMS 120 will be valuable to her in her everyday life as well.
Amanda Ciafone is a professor at the University who teaches another immensely popular course, the introductory course to Media and Cinema Studies, MACS 100.
“Students often assume that because they like to watch movies that they will automatically be able to do well in this class,” Ciafone said. “If they don’t attend lecture, do the reading and actively engage in discussion section, exam one is usually a harsh awakening.”
Ciafone enjoys teaching MACS 100 for many reasons.
“I love that I get to talk to students about media texts they are passionate about,” Ciafone said. “I love that they want to know how the media became so important to our contemporary society and politics.”
Ciafone said she is always surprised to see how students find ways to fail her class.
“I suggest that TAs review the syllabus on the first day of section with an in-class activity: find five ways you can blow your grade in this class,” Ciafone said.
She said they are transparent with students about the expectations of the course and what happens if they are not met.
“I often think my 15-year-old self wouldn’t believe that I’m getting paid to talk about movies and TV,” Ciafone said. “Of course, she also wouldn’t believe that I’d have more to say about the history, form and industry, over my favorite episodes of ‘The Golden Girls.’”