What is the Deal With Class Size?

Does class size really make a difference?

Frequent commenters Gen X and Army Amy have asked me to give you my thoughts on class size and its effect on learning.  Early in this blog’s life, I wrote a post on class size, in which I assert that

I believe that if every class in the country were reduced to a maximum of fifteen students, many, if not most, of our educational and social ills would be resolved.

Four years on, I’m not as convinced.  I’ve taught classes with as few as 3 students and as many as 43; I’ve had semester loads of 70 students and loads of 120.   Of course small classes are nice: less grading, more chances for individuals to express themselves.  However, the effect of the class size seems to vary wildly depending on the dynamic in the class, the level of the students, and the conditions under which we are working.  I’ve had small classes that went pretty poorly, and big classes where everyone seemed to feel validated and supported.  In the end, it was difficult to tell whether the students in the small classes really learned more.

There is research that purports that class size has a huge effect on learning.  There is other research that purports that it doesn’t, or at least it has less of an effect than we think.  As usual, statistics can tell any story we want them to tell.

Nevertheless, I persist in feeling I am a much better teacher to my students if I have fewer of them.

What is your experience, as either a teacher or a student?  Does class size really make such a big difference?  Obviously, teachers are happier if their classes are smaller.  Are students happier too, and does this help them achieve?

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47 responses

  1. For me, it depends. Since I teach English I, II and III, I can base my observations on specific curricula.

    For English I, the smaller the class, the better. I teach Title students and they struggle to read and write well. That said, I don’t want a class any smaller than 10. In the past, it’s made for an uncomfortable setting. But anything up to 15 gives me the opportunity to move and help freely without giving me a crazy work load.

    For English II, I can take up to 25 without much problem. These students are not Title, tend to understand expectations and don’t give me much trouble. Often, they are open to discussion and will share personal observations. If these classes get much smaller, students tend to be a bit more reserved…which is frustrating.

    Even though English III is a Title class, I prefer to have 20-25 students in the class. We do several activities that require class participation, and without a large number of participants, many of those activities won’t work. These classes are also typically easier for me because these students are in their third (or fourth…or fifth) year of high school and understand the expectations. I don’t have to spend much time discussing MLA style or deadline requirements.

    So I guess in some ways, smaller class sizes could be beneficial. But, like you, I don’t think this is always the case.

    (Forgive any typos. I’m trying to get this submitted before the bell rings!)

  2. I tend to agree with you that smaller classes at least feel better.
    I have 40 minutes to teach a class of 30 pupils. If I take just 5 minutes starting up and 5 minutes ending my lesson that leaves me one whole minute for each pupil, for personal attention. Theoretically that is. Of course there are ways round this, pupils can help each other. Still,in my opinion learning flourishes in an atmosphere that is not cramped with too many pupils, too little time or too much time stress.

    Annemieke Windig
    Teaches English at a secondary school in Holland

    • Annemieke: It’s true that, even if I feel like a large class is doing well, there are always students who vanish into the background. We can create a good, supportive atmosphere where students help each other, but it’s hard to know who we’re missing.

  3. When it comes to teaching languages, small groups are better because everyone gets a change to speak and to be heard and corrected. Big groups don’t allow students practising and actually using what they are taught or the teacher controling and correcting what they say.

  4. I taught first grade for three years where I truly believe class size matters. In those beginning years, one-on-one and small group instruction (particularly in reading), is critical and as I learned to fine-tune my classroom management for small group instruction, my kids did better. 20 kids was a busy classroom, but not impossible to manage. In middle school (where I truly belong), my classes have been steadily growing. Right now, all of my classes are over 30, the largest at 35. While classroom discussions are more challenging to make sure I involve every student, the only one who really notices the increased class size is me (the grading is very time consuming) — and the students who are really struggling. In the upper grades, it’s those students, the ones who are struggling to keep up, who need the smaller class sizes most of all.

    • Barb: I agree with the wisdom behind trying to keep struggling students in smaller classes. We have been fighting for years at my college to keep remedial English classes under 25 students. I occasionally end up with at class of 10 or 15, and that is absolutely ideal. The fewer the students, the more attention we can give them, but also, the more practice and feedback we can give them. I think that’s essential for students who struggle with any subject.

  5. Assuming that all students behave and there is enough physical space and supplies/resources for each of them, I think class size does not by itself make education better. What matters is individualized consideration (trait of transformational leadership, a theory that I like very much) – i.e. the teacher must make each single student feel involved in the lessons. Of course it is potentially easier for the teacher to do so if there are less students, but the one doesn’t necessarily imply the other. It all ultimately depends on the teacher’s willingness and ability to establish some kind of relationship with the students, and the mechanisms he or she puts in place to do so.

    I have an example of a professor, who was able to give this individualized consideration even in rather crowded classes. I took two undergrad courses with this teacher (he became my favourite), and in both of them the class consisted of about 80 students. At the beginning of each course we had to fill in a form with a picture of ourselves and some information, so that he could “study” us a bit. Then he kept all lessons rather short and focused on key messages, so that in each 1.5 hour lesson there was always time for a wrap-up of all previous episodes (which after 2 years I still remember!) in the beginning and for discussion at the end. There were usually no slides available online – which was ok because attendance was required to take the exam – so people not only had to be there but they also needed to pay attention. He used to walk around the desks and ask questions directly to the students calling them by name – other important reason to pay attention. He also did all of that in a very funny way, so people were not bored or annoyed – I wrote pages of quotes of him making fun of us and himself. So, even though we were a relatively large class, everyone needed and wanted to be part of it, and afterwards remembered what they had learned. Not surprisingly, by now he has appeared several times in the “20 best teachers ranking” of the university.

    So yeah, that’s my 2 cents :)

    Chiara

  6. I think it depends mostly on the student themselves. Also I believe that size is a psychological issue based on distraction theory. “The more students the more interruptions.” Is what one of my professsors use to say all the time, so it some how became true for the students. If that makes sense.

    • “The more students the more interruptions” – I’ve never thought of it that way, but it’s a very interesting perspective. It’s true that in small classes, it’s harder to get distracted. Thanks!

  7. I can only speak from the student side but I have taken in high school a 4 student class -Biology- and was the best class I ever had. Learned a lot and had lots of fun too. Cheers!

  8. I was just an occasional teacher (of professional management accounting courses) but I was more comfortable with a smaller class – I mean a class size of 15-25 rather than 50-60. A much smaller one like 7-8 looks too small a class for me.

    A class of say 15 gives enough variety of interest and skill levels to provide interesting challenge but when it becomes 5o or so there is this lack of eye contact with each one, not knowing their names and strengths and weaknesses etc.

  9. Classroom size means something completely different where I come from. The smallest class I have ever taught was 90 students. Usually I have about 250 per class, which means that this term I have 500 students in 2 sections. It is challenging, but I do not believe it is impossible. You definitely have to think about the things that you do in class because the marking is overwhelming. But you also teach them more about working together and learning from each other. I know a heckuva lot of faces by the end of term. And after running into a student I remembered well who had no idea who I was, I wonder if I remember them far better than they remember me.

    Then again my class of 90 was a lot of fun. But I cannot totally separate the smaller class size from the fact that it was a 3 week intensive course where we saw each other for several hours every day. I definitely got to know those students better and felt I had a really great connection with them, but I has the same number of fails.

    • Robininatree: I’d be interested to know where you come from – this arrangement sounds very challenging! And I agree; intensive courses are always best in terms of getting to know students and being able to offer them the best help possible, but that doesn’t always lead to more passing grades. Maybe some students get overwhelmed with the intensity?

  10. I once had a teacher friend say, and some of the other commenters echo this, that it’s not so much the size of the class itself but that each student is bringing so many different needs to the classroom. Especially in some of the poorer areas of Toronto where I am, you will have some students who are coming to class not having been properly fed. Then, of course, there are a few who are simply not up to speed with the rest of the class. Some might also be plain restless. There are an infinite number of these types of problems.

    I think the more of this you have the more difficult it becomes to teach to the class as a single unit, or even just teach while still attending to individual needs. It would be nice if all students were alert and ready to go and had no problems at home, but this is a perfect world that we’re not living in.

    Anyway, that’s my vote in favour of smaller classes. With smaller classes, perhaps teachers could more easily manage these diverse needs of students. It’s not the be all end all, but I do think it’s important.

    • Ravi:

      Yes, I often hear arguments that class size is only one of many more important problems, but as you say, why not do something about it so we can better address some of the other issues?

  11. Class size is one of the biggest things that seems to affect my classroom learning environment. For example, my 7th period was at 32 students for the past month of school. They have been out of control and I dreaded having that class. Two weeks ago they finally got the number down to the state mandated 25 and the class has completely changed. They are well behaved, engaged, and more of them are doing their homework than ever before. Time and time again my biggest classes have always been my “bad” classes and my smallest classes are my “good” ones. After 5 years, this can’t just be a coincidence. 9th graders are 9th graders no matter what.

    • This is very interesting, TG – I wonder what the psychological explanations of this are? Some combination of herd mentality, group dynamics, and a need to be seen? I feel like some important research could happen here.

  12. I can only speak for myself, because I think every teacher’s experience is as different as their opinions on class size. My classes run from 33-36 this year. The classroom experience is fine; I try to break activities up, call on people, set up groups, etc. I’m getting to most people in the room (but not everyone, and larger classes offer more opportunities to hide).

    My biggest issue is with paper load and timely feedback. I collected 103 essays three days ago. The students who get that feedback in two days are more likely to take it seriously and make changes than the ones who get their papers later and who don’t even remember what they wrote.

    • OKP: for me, the problem of class size comes down to exactly this. A few semesters ago, I had a total load of only 60 students, and the marking load was so manageable! I was able to give them tons of writing and feedback, and get the feedback to them in short order, and then when they came to see me about the feedback, I was able to remember what they’d written and discuss it meaningfully. When I have 120 students, none of those things are possible.

  13. I think the content of the course also has an impact on whether larger classes work or not. Intensive course are better with smaller classes but introduction level courses can be taught to a larger class as well. The smallest class I’ve taught had 30 students and the largest is my current one of 80 students. Larger classes mean more input from the class, more diverse opinions, more possibilities for discussions but smaller classes mean more in-depth discussion, more rapport with the students and more intensive learning. So I suppose both class sizes have their pros and cons and it depends on content of the course, level of study (freshmen, sophomores, etc.) and the students themselves! :)

  14. I have always felt that I’ve learned more in smaller classes than in large ones, simply because it is much easier to have an open discussion about a topic and to connect to each other. I find that if I am able to connect with the teacher well, I value the class more, I am more interested in what others have to say, and I find the material to be more applicable to real life. Also, I am less tempted to talk, text, or pass notes in class because the teacher is better able to see what I’m doing! Smaller classes seem to be better for me personally, but I’ve had good experiences with larger classes, too. I hope that one day soon I can answer your questions and speak from the perspective of a teacher, rather than one of a student.

    Sarah

    • Sarah: I often find, too, that smaller classes have a better dynamic because students feel more responsible to the teacher and each other. Students feel SEEN, and like a part of a small community. On the other side, in a small class, if one student is difficult or unpleasant, it can sour the whole atmosphere pretty quickly.

  15. I think smaller classes are important when you are trying to master basic skills of any sort–reading, writing, math, etc. Larger, or somewhat larger classes are fine when you have moved beyond basic skills and are looking for student-teacher or student-student give-and-take in classroom discussion.

    It’s a good question you’ve brought up. I think as you say, small class size can be helpful when students need specific attention to masterning basic skills (and when the teacher needs to do extensive corrections outside of class, such as grading essays). How much attention could you give to weekly grading of 15 student essays, vs. 45 student essays? It would make a very big difference in elementary school. Let’s hope that by college (except in remedial classes), less attention would be necessary. I think in remedial classes (of all types), far more can be done with smaller class size. To make progress, remedial students need one-on–one interaction with a teacher or even a tutor.

    • Lynne: yes, the essay grading is definitely the most difficult part of a large class! And in my experience, individual attention at college makes a huge difference. Students in small classes don’t necessarily get better grades, but I think they often work harder, for some of the reasons mentioned above.

  16. I teach a class on Comparative Politics, 48 strong this term, 33 strong last year. So far (and this may change), the only real difference is that some of the quieter kids get lost in the bigger class. I do regret that. However, in some ways, this bigger lot still manages to have interesting discussions, etc. I try to conduct it as a seminar, which works for some of the less theoretical sessions and feel that *sometimes* the more kids there are, the more ideas can get bounced around. In smaller groups, sometimes everyone ends up on the same page too soon, or there are not enough variations in opinion.

    With 33 last year, I had them do a war game and they enjoyed it so much, though of course it would have been more organised if there had been fewer of them.
    I take 2 other classes, 75 each, on Pakistan Studies which is a compulsory course on the history, politics, culture, etc of Pakistan. One section is a lot of fun – responsive, interested, perceptive. The other makes me want to scream or go to sleep! It’s just a random accident in terms of the type of kids.

    I am NOT looking forward to the grading though! 75+75 quizzes times 3, 75+75 final exams, 48 assignments times 2, 48 research papers – spread over the period from now to early January O_o This is the first time I’ve actually put it down in hard, bold math! = P

    That said, if I were teaching a writing course, like my friend is, I would want no more than 30 kids. She’s having to suffer through 40 odd, with assignments every alternate session or week!

    • SM: the grading is definitely the kicker. I am just coming off a three-day weekend of non-stop marking, and have another batch coming in tonight and another on Friday. I have to cut corners on the amount of practice my students get, because I simply can’t give them constructive feedback if there’s too much. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  17. Hello again!

    I guess that it depends on the lessons.

    Again, since I am a student of languages, the less, the better. That way the teacher can spend more time with you, telling you how to improve, etc. But there are lessons I had where the teacher would only talk about something, and it didn’t really matter if we were the 120 people we were supposed to be in there or just 2. 1st of all, because nobody understood what he was saying, and 2nd, because he was talking about history of something. So you can just take notes, download the documents he uploads in the school platform and that’s it. If you have any questions, he will of course explain whatever you need.

    Greetings from Spain =)

    • Merry: I agree; when it comes to a straight-up lecture, the number of people in the room really doesn’t matter. As a teacher who doesn’t believe in doing a lot of teacher-centered lecturing, this method doesn’t work for me, but it might for someone else depending on the nature of the class. Thanks for chiming in!

  18. I find it depends on the course material, the teacher’s instruction style, and the students’ interest in the subject.

    I’ve taken courses that consisted of myself and five or six other students. But the subject matter wasn’t that interesting and the teacher lectured with Power Point presentations, so the small class size became irrelevant. They could have put a hundred more people in the class and the only difference would have been how far we sat from the projector screen.

    I remember another course that same year that was three or four times the size, and because it frequently involved heavy discussion of interesting topics, it was much easier to focus and absorb the material, and thus, do better.

    • WTP: yes, you seem to be on the same page as Merry, which is that where lectures are concerned, class size is irrelevant, but if we want to use more interactive methods, this is still possible with a larger class. Thanks!

  19. The age gradient and the “struggling or cruising” gradient are both important. Also important, I think, is that you hope for each student to have a mix of classes where they can be “seen,” and of course heard, as many above commenters have pointed out; and also of classes where the instructor is just going to present the material and the students will have to be responsible for making the most of it. That is, after all, what we have to do as adults: learn stuff with no supports. Some of my best classes in college were mammoth lectures (some with discussion sections, some without). The best lecturers can be almost magical in their ability to present, synthesize, point to contradictions, prefigure the next topic, and bring it all together. I also had a couple of great discussion-based classes, but also a few where I did not think the discussions were as valuable as simply having the professor present more material, or more interpretations of the material, would have been. The professors, after all, are spending their lives with this stuff, and we students varied a lot in terms of motivation, willingness to do the reading, and basic thinking skills.

  20. Ah! It was great reading your post and two days of wonderful discussion after it.
    I barely knew the teacher’s turmoil before reading it here.

    As a student, I’ve always found a smaller strength the most helpful during my technical – maths/science/cs lctures. Larger strength kind of bore me since things seem to go very slowly, giving folks a lot of scope to fool around. I’m talking classes 50 to 60 strong. Although it almost always depended on the teacher and her approach, i could concentrate much better with lesser peers around (i can say 10 to 15 is like great). There’s virtually no distraction. And there was always a connection with the teacher – like she could speculate our comprehension at any point.

    But some classes, for instance seminars, workshops or discussions really worked great in a larger group. More participation, greater diversity, more lively. :)

    • Ashkay: thanks for your thoughts! I can definitely see both sides of this, and although a small class has many advantages, there’s always the possibility that it will feel dull; large classes can be very lively.

  21. From a student’s perspective…

    I went to Ouachita Baptist University which is a small college in Arkansas. After living in the monster metropolis of Dallas, TX my whole life, I loved being in classes of only 5 – 20 students for each class I took on campus. My professors were able to see where I might have been struggling or would catch a “look on my face” that showed I really didn’t understand that last point that they were trying to make. In the same sense, they could see all of us grasping the ideas quickly and could move forward with more information than maybe they had originally planned. Their office doors were always open and you could walk in without appointments to talk or get help. One particular class I remember vividly was in my freshman year and it was during finals week. A student was absent from the 8am class final and the professor had one of us call the student until they answered. Their alarm clock did not go off and the professor amazingly waited for her to come to class so she would be able to take the final and not fail. I know that’s a rarity among other small colleges and classes, but I know had I been in a much larger setting, that would not have happened.

    So my vote would be for a small class! :)

    • MM: What a touching story! Your professor is a kinder person than I…That said, a community like the one you describe makes these kinds of concessions more possible. Thank you for your input!

  22. I have had everywhere between 13 and 23 students as an elementary teacher. I can get to every single student multiple times, during a whole week, with 13. I can get to them individually, in small groups….each week. Not much is going to slip through the cracks as I can engage with each student’s needs across 6 core subjects and so many other social and emotional aspects…

  23. And now to weigh in on class sizes for little kids . . . of course, interaction is key for K-8. So there should never be more students than can participate comfortably in a group discussion, or other group activity. A big issue is, how wide a span of achievement levels is in this class room? The school district’s policy on social promotion, acceleration/skipping grades certainly enters in. Also, how many kids with cognitive delays are there? what supports do they get from persons other than the classroom teacher? How about behavioral challenges? In my experience, a classroom at the grade 5 or above level, with no child in the room who is more than two years below grade level, can have as many as 30 students and work well (not easily for the teacher, but well for the students). That is not typically what we see these days, however, so I think that 20-25 at grade 5 level is much more realistic.

    • Jane: 20-25 is an interesting number. I’m not a primary school teacher, but I would have the ideal number at somewhere around 15. Would you say that 20-25 is optimal, or just that it’s workable?

  24. Fifteen is a little small in my opinion, unless we’re talking K-1 and kids who are from tough backgrounds. To fund class sizes of 15 all through the elementary grades would usually come with a trade-off of less staff in other areas that are important (both teachers, social services like speech, and special ed.). Also, and this is just personal, I did not like the feeling, in elementary school, of being closely monitored by my teachers. I wanted them to teach, but not try to get inside my head. Many children, I think, share this trait, especially boys and especially students who don’t need any special help.

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