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The Benefits of Small Class Sizes at Nipissing University

Editor’s Note: Nipissing University is a public liberal arts university located in Northern Ontario, Canada, on a 720-acre site overlooking scenic Lake Nipissing. (The name means “big water” in the Algonquin language.) The university’s faculty of education is notable for its superior teacher education program, innovative teaching methods, and strong emphasis on integrating technology in the classroom. Homeschoolers will be pleased to know that Carlo Ricci, Ph.D., professor of alternative learning at Nipissing University and editor of The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, is an advocate of self-directed learner-centered education. The university is also widely known for its portrayal in Lynn Johnston’s comic strip For Better or For Worse, in which the character Elizabeth Patterson was an education student at Nipissing from 1999-2004. In addition to its education programs, Nipissing University offers a variety of degree programs in Arts and Science (Humanities, Sciences, Fine Arts and Social Sciences) as well as Applied and Professional Studies (Criminal Justice, Business, Nursing, Social Work and Family Studies). Nipissing does not have an official homeschool admission policy, but they do offer “Exceptions to Normal Admission Requirements” for applicants who, in its opinion, deserve special consideration. According to Andrea Robinson, Associate Registrar of Admissions, “Nipissing welcomes inquiries from home-schooled students and we assess each applicant on an individual basis. We have had great experience with the small number of home-schooled students who have shown an interest in Nipissing in the past.” In this guest post, Paul Stephen writes about how Nipissing University’s small class sizes work to the student’s advantage.


The Benefits of Small Class Sizes at Nipissing University, by Paul Stephen

Small class size, something that Nipissing University is well known for, is extremely important in relation to certain factors of a student’s academic experience.

One of the toughest but most rewarding challenges new university students face is gaining confidence in one’s own intellectual voice, which includes voicing questions as well as answers. Often, at university, students are swimming in vast classrooms or lecture halls, where it is acoustically impractical to speak up—not to mention intimidating. The professor can hardly hear you, and neother can the other students—one would almost need a microphone.

However, at Nipissing University, the small class size allows for a more comfortable personal interaction between faculty and students, as well as students and other students. This small class size—not in an overwhelming lecture hall for three-hundred people—fosters an atmosphere for speaking up and vocalizing questions, opinions, and observations. This is much needed in gaining a sense of what one has to offer to one’s field of study, a sensibility that, once developed, can serve one not just in university, but also in one’s career, and for the rest of one’s life. At Nipissing University, we care about the quality of this experience, and this is one of the reasons for small class sizes.

Whatever the subject you choose to major in academically, as a student you are going to need to learn to think critically, look around you at the world, communicate your observations, read material closely from text books and other sources, and interact with colleagues in your field. The class size of the average class at Nipissing University takes into account these challenges and exciting features of your education.

When a student begins his or her first year away at university, one of the first challenges—other than absorbing a large amount of information (much more than any high school curriculum demands)—is gaining confidence in one’s questions as well as other intellectual ideas. It is perhaps a strange thought to put forward that one must gain confidence in one’s questions, but this is also one of the most important aspects of any field of research. It is often what we don’t yet know that drives us to new discoveries. As scientist and writer David Bohm writes, it is not certainty in our knowledge or experience that is the norm, but rather an underlying sense of uncertainty. Small class sizes allow for discussions around questions, so that problems and issues are not glossed over and lost, but delved into and explored. This opportunity for dialogue creates an intellectual community at Nipissing that offers a strong base for learning to think and communicate and wonder—which is the whole point of a solid education. Gaining confidence, therefore, is about learning to express what we don’t know yet, just as much as it is about what we do know. As students, and as people in the intellectual field dedicated to a life of learning, we must interact with one another and continue questioning. This is much more possible in a class of a smaller size, like those at Nipissing, than in a large lecture hall full of hundreds of students.

Also, intimate classroom settings give students the opportunity to be heard multiple times during a class—not just once, or even once all term. A student can therefore become more comfortable with the class over the time span of the term, and gain confidence in his or her intellectual voice. This is an advantage for shy students, in particular, or those who usually slip through the cracks in the system, or get lost in a crowd. It is also a good opportunity for those students who are natural leaders, too, since  they will have to develop interpersonal skills when dealing with other students who are unlike them—and have different styles of learning and understanding. Everyone, in a smaller class size, gets a feel for other types of people and intellectual sensibilities. All in all, whether a student is naturally quieter or more outspoken, everyone gets a chance to speak more and listen to each other more in classes that are smaller.

Small class sizes at Nipissing also offer a support network, both personal and academic. Human beings were meant to live in communities in which others know them personally—strengths, weakness, even their likes and dislikes. Each student has a unique mind and a particular way of expressing his or her ideas. At Nipissing, the professors can much more easily get to know students individually, because of the small class size and the general atmosphere of the university, which focuses on students and their individual needs, first.

Paul Stephen is from the highly respected Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. A Bachelor of Education degree, or advanced degree, provides the foundation and training that can lead you to many different careers.

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