Class Size Matters

Posted on February 11, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges |

At my institution, most classes are capped between 24-35 students. I have been involved in many discussions with colleagues where we discuss our anecdotal evidence about ideal class size: small enough (~24-28 students) that we can learn all our students names, give full attention to quality feedback on their work, and create a warm classroom atmosphere – but not so small (<10 students) that it is difficult to get meaningful classroom discussion going.

So I was happy to find an article by Steven Benton and Bill Pallett of the IDEA Center with actual evidence about class size.

The authors ask:

  • Do the learning objectives, teaching methods, teacher standards, and workload expectations vary, depending upon class size?
  • Do students’ learning, motivation, and work habits in large classes match those in smaller classes?

Their findings, based on 10 years of collecting data from students rating of instruction using  the IDEA Center tool,  are interesting, but not surprising (and more nuanced than can be summarized in a short blog post).

The bottom line: yes, class size makes a difference – and that has more to do with what the instructor does than what the students do. In very large classes (50+ students), instructors are more likely to emphasize factual knowledge and less likely to support students’ development of communication skills. That is, instructors in very large classes are more likely to lecture than those in small (10-14 students) and medium-size (15-34 students) classes. In turn, students in large classes are less likely to report progress on creative capacities (writing, inventing, designing, and performing).

One overall finding that interested me was that in their data, lecture remains the most frequent teaching method regardless of class size. Only 5% of their sample included surveys from Associate’s granting colleges (the rest were from colleges and universities). Do you think their results would be different if community colleges were better represented in the sample? (I do).



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