Seminar and class size limits

1.1 School policy requires undergraduate classes and graduate seminars to have a maximum limit of 15 students per group.

1.2 This has been established policy for undergraduate course. It was introduced at the graduate level in October 2009 as a result of a Teaching Task Force recommendation (approved by the Academic Board in May 2008).

1.3 The School acknowledges that it might be appropriate to run larger classes/seminars when pedagogically appropriate. It also recognises that student demand and other resource reasons might make it unavoidable for some courses to run larger classes/seminars in particular years. USSC and GSSC can grant exemptions to the maximum class/seminar size rule in such cases. 

1.4 The principles and procedures for class/seminar size exemptions are set out below.

Principles for considering requests to hold oversize classes/seminars

2.1 The USSC and GSSC Chairs will use the following principles as a guide when considering requests from departments for exemption from the maximum class/seminar size.

2.2 In all cases where a course runs oversize classes or seminars, corresponding increases in office hours and other student learning support associated with the course need to be made. The course leader/convener is responsible for ensuring that available student support corresponds adequately to the number of students on the course.

2.3 There are two possible kinds of exemption – temporary and three-year.

2.4 ‘Temporary exemption’ means permission to run oversize classes/seminars for one academic year. In all cases, the department is asked to first consider whether it can run an additional class/seminar group. If not, temporary exemptions can be granted in cases where a course needs to run oversize classes/seminars due to resource constraints, which might include the following reasons:

  • unexpectedly high/late student demand for a course;
  • departure of staff/unsuccessful recruitment round;
  • staff illness/unavoidable personal reasons;
  • insufficient resource to run additional class/seminar group. 

2.5 If a temporary exemption is granted, it is expected that departments will factor these considerations into their planning processes to avoid oversize groups the following year.

2.6 ‘Three-year exemption’ means permission to run oversize classes/seminars for three years without needing further exemption during that period. These exemptions are granted for pedagogical reasons:

  • where a specialist teacher, e.g. an external expert, is only available to teach a limited number of seminars/classes and where students would be disadvantaged by being taught by a non-specialist;
  • where sessions are structured on a non-standard model, for example lectures immediately followed by group-based activity, or larger seminars/classes that involve extensive use of small group 'break out' sessions;
  • certain sessions taught in quantitative subjects which are normally referred to as 'seminars' or 'classes' but usually involve larger groups working on problem sets;
  • certain computer-based sessions.

2.7 A further three-year exemption may be granted at the end of the initial three years. There is no limit on the number of additional exemptions that may be granted. Departments will be required to show that the grounds on which the initial three-year exemption are still in place, i.e. that class/seminar sizes have not significantly increased, or that additional student support has been put in place if they have.

2.8 In cases where new teaching arrangements are being tried out, temporary exemption will be granted in the first instance and departments will be asked to review the success of the seminars during their year of ‘temporary’ exemption. This should include consultation with students in Staff-Student Liaison Committees. If the seminars are deemed successful, departments may apply for a three-year exemption from the maximum graduate seminar size in time for the next academic session.

2.9 Departments have some autonomy in establishing temporary solutions to unexpectedly high levels of student demand for particular courses. Fifteen should remain the ‘normal’ maximum class/seminar size. But departments may run class/seminar groups on a temporary basis of up to 17 students without needing formal USSC/GSSC approval. Such cases will be in response to e.g. a surge in student demand; and will occur only when the department is unable to run an additional class/seminar group.

2.10 All departments will report their class/seminar sizes to TQARO in week 5 of Michaelmas Term and in week 4 of Lent Term. This will include exemption requests for courses running any classes/seminars greater than 17 students.

2.11 These class/seminar size reports will be included on Staff-Student Liaison Committee agendas. Staff will explain to students why certain courses are running oversize classes/seminars, and the steps they are taking to mitigate the larger size on students’ learning experiences (e.g. increased office hours and/or other learning support).

Process for applying for class/seminar size exemptions

3.1 In an email to the USSC or GSSC secretary, please provide the following information:

Temporary exemptions (normally submitted as part of a department’s class/seminar size report submitted in MT week 5 or LT week 4)

  • course code and title;
  • a short explanation setting out the need for the exemption;
  • the steps the department will take to avoid the need for temporary exemption for the course in question next year;
  • the additional student support arrangements that will be put in place, if necessary;
  • the number of students that will attend each class/seminar group

Three-year exemptions (normally submitted in good time prior to the start of teaching)

  • course code and title;
  • the status of the course – is it core or optional;
  • a short explanation setting out the need for the exemption, including a summary of the teaching style and why it is appropriate;
  • the additional student support arrangements that will be put in place, if necessary;
  • the likely normal class/seminar size if your request is granted.

3.2 In all cases, the department will need to make a case to explain why the classes/seminars need to be oversize.  The USSC/GSSC Chair will consider the request and the secretary will let the department know the outcome. The Chair might request additional information from the department before reaching his/her decision.

3.3 The secretary will convey the Chair’s decision to the department.

April 2013

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