Class Sizes

1 Feb

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As a student at school my classes were small. My teachers knew me, and their doors were open to discuss my essays and lab reports. As resources have declined in recent decades, class sizes have got bigger. Does this matter? With the flipped classroom and blended modern learning environments it hardly matters. Or does it?

Well it certainly matters in schools where, as class sizes increase, teachers behave differently, learners behave differently, attitudes to learning change – and attainment goes down markedly. Average school class sizes are used in international league tables as indicators of national commitment to schooling.

The effects of class size are greatest for younger pupils and least, but still substantial, for those of 18 or over. Studies of what goes on in higher education discussion classes, as they get bigger, still reveal a predictable pattern of fewer students saying anything at all, and the little they do say being at a lower cognitive level (for example checking facts rather than discussing ideas). Students in larger classes have been found to take a surface approach (only attempting to memorise) to a greater extent and a deep approach (attempting to make sense) to a lesser extent.

It might be argued that classrooms, and their size, are less influential in higher education, after all students are supposed to spend most of their time studying independently.

Logistics play a key part in class size effects. Two of the best predictors of student engagement, and hence learning, ‘close contact’ and ‘feedback on assignments’, are much harder to arrange in large classes.

These are ‘cohort size’ effects rather than ‘class size’ effects: they are about how students change the way they study on large enrolment courses. So size still matters in higher education, and cohort size is strongly negatively correlated with student performance. This may be one of the reasons that some schools outperform much more established institutions on various rankings of teaching quality – they tend to be much smaller and their class sizes are much smaller.

In very large classes social processes start breaking down and students can become alienated. This matters because retention is improved by social engagement.  Learning gains are known to be improved by social learning processes – and they are harder to arrange and much rarer in large enrollment.

All these negative ‘size’ effects are not inevitable. For example ‘formative-only’ assessment – assignments with feedback but no marks – is known to be important to learning, but has disappeared from some courses. Often this happens because resources – and especially teacher time both in and out of class – are not allocated pro rata as classes get larger.

Just a thought then. Does class size effect the quality of your teaching? What do you think?

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