October 24, 2014

Does Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratio Matter?

by Andrew Wang, Pharm.D, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Residency, Howard County General Hospital

Does class size and student:teacher ratio affect student performance? How should this factor affect how we teach? This issue is relevant whether we are teaching elementary or secondary or post-secondary schools.  There has been an ongoing dialog about the value of reducing class size and student:teacher ratio versus the cost of education.1 While proponents for each side of the debate point out the advantages and disadvantages of each position, does the focus on the number of teachers or the number of students really lead to improvements in student performance? The focus of this blog post isn’t to compare which is better but rather, it is using data to examine the benefits and limitations of both. In examining both sides of this issue, we as educators can make better choices with regard to instructional design and teaching style.

Why is class size so important? Some state governments have pushed for smaller class sizes as a means of improving student test scores and overall success. Class size affects a host of variables when it comes to teaching. For example, class size can impact teacher-student interactions, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It is highly unlikely that in a class of 200 students, one professor would have the ability to spend much time directly interacting with each student. Moreover, those teacher-student interactions will be lacking in quality. Thus, class size is an environmental factor teachers must consider when determining the methods of instruction and when making instructional design decisions.2 The approach a teacher should take in a large class differs from that of a small class.

Proponents of higher student:teacher ratios argue that strong evidence is lacking regarding the benefits of smaller classes, particularly in the setting of undergraduate and graduate education.  One meta-analysis suggested that student performance was independent of class size.4  Could student achievement and class size really be independent? The key conclusion made by this study was the fact that it focuses on post-secondary education. In classes where students already possess higher-level thinking abilities, class size may not impact student performance.  Indeed, there may be some benefits to larger class sizes such as greater competition, more ideas, more resources, and more efficient use of resources.

Proponets of smaller class size and lower student-teacher ratios argue that more and purposeful student-teacher interactions result in enhanced learning, particularly when it comes to helping students develop their higher-order thinking and complex reasoning skills.5  When the class size is larger, the teacher has less influence over teaching and places more responsibility on students to learn.6 In larger classes it is harder for the teacher to have command over the environment. Lastly, class size may play a role in the teacher’s attitude and commitment.  In smaller classes, the teacher is more likely to be committed to every student’s success whereas in a larger class setting, the focus may not always be teaching.7

How should class size influence our approach to teaching? It starts with the instructional design. One must consider the desired result and goal of the class. For example, in a larger class setting, knowledge transmission may the goal and it may sufficient to completely and logically present information in the form of a lecture.   In smaller class setting, the desired result may go beyond mere knowledge transmission.  The approach to achieving the desired result may also differ in a smaller vs. larger class size. For example, in a smaller class size, informal interactions and one-on-one customized learning activities can be used while in a larger class size, a more structured lesson plan might be needed. Some modes of delivery might include lecturing, video media, and group discussions. It is important to note that in larger class settings, the same material must be provided to everyone.8  In a smaller class environment, it is possible for information to be conveyed differently to each student, which allows the educator evaluate each student’s needs and give additional assistance as needed.

Lastly, the evaluation process usually differs. In a larger setting, it is typically necessary to have examinations at the conclusion of instruction in order for students to demonstrate competency and understanding of the material.  These exams must be efficient to administer and score.   In contrast, in a smaller class setting, evaluations can occur almost simultaneously as one teaches the material.

Class size should influence on how the educator approaches instructional design. The educator needs to tailor his or her instructional approach and create an effective environment for learning. Whether the class is large or small, the educator still has control of how students are educated. Student performance is influenced by multiple factors: background knowledge, interactions, participation, attitude, course material … and class size. Success is multi-factorial and cannot simply be solved by focusing on one aspect. While class size does have some influence, it is not the only variable that determines student performance and success. And in the end, well-planned instructional designs is perhaps important that class size and student:teacher ratio.   

  1. Kezar, AJ. The impact of institutional size on student engagement. NASPA Journal. 2006;43(1):87-91.
  2. Taft SH, Perkowski T, Martin LS. A framework for evaluating class size in online education. Quarterly Review of Distance Education. 2011;12(3):181-97.
  3. Ice P, Gibson AM, Boston W et al. Exploration of differences between community of inquiry indicators in low and high disenrollment online courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 2011.15(2);44-69.
  4. Slavin, R. Class size and student achievement: Is smaller better? Contemporary Education. 1990;62(1):6-12.
  5. Rawat KJ, Thomas M, Quazi W. Factors that inhibit teachers from adapting a student – centered teaching approach. The European Journal of Social Sciences. 2012:28(3);383-90.
  6. Radders, SK. Design for class size: A study for instructional designers of large courses [dissertation]. [Minnesota]. Capella University; 2012. 7-20 p.
  7. Savage, A. Why going to a small college rocks [Internet]. 2014 May 24 [cited 2014 Oct 10].
  8. Clark, D.R. Design Methodologies: instructional, thinking, agile, system, or x problem? [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2014 Oct 18].

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