Class Size: Cliché or Reason for Debate

by Katrina Amaral

Is the topic of class size even a debate anymore? It may not seem like it, since an overwhelming amount of comprehensive studies and debates have been discussed in recent decades. Even significant federal policies have come to the surface concerning the issue of class size in secondary education. However, although the issue has been dicussed, debated, and the center of major policy changes, the issue of class size in higher education has neglected to be addressed. Therefore, if addressed appropriately, the implementation of smaller classes would significantly impact the existing structure and function in many colleges and unviersities in the nation. The argument for smaller class sizes at the university level is the optimal solution for increased learning, motivation, and overall success among college students.

Class-size reduction has been a prevalent topic in the past few decades to the extent that it is now considered cliché. The latest poll results reveal that seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that excess education dollars should be spent on class-size reductions rather than increased teacher salaries (Chingos). The discussion on the importance of reducing class sizes began in 2000 as the federal government supported a school improvement strategy that gave states the monetary support they needed to recruit, hire, and train new teachers in secondary education schools (Class Size). In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act solidified and strengthened this strategy by altering its focus to teacher-quality (Class Size). By 2008, twenty-one states implemented a class-size reduction policy for that year and by 2010, only fifteen states did not have laws limiting the number of students that could be present in a general education classroom in a secondary school (Class Size). However, due to the initial economic downturns in 2008, many states began to relax their class-size policies in order to satisfy budgetary constraints (Class Size). Also, school districts began to use their teacher-quality block grant money for purposes other than class-size reduction plans (Bandiera). It is clear that the issue of class size in secondary education has become one of our nation’s prominent concerns in the past two decades.

Due to the prevalence of the topic of class size, many research projects have been conducted in its favor and are accepted by the general public. Project STAR (student-teacher achievement ratio) is arguably the most credible source of information concerning class-size reduction to the present. This experiment was granted permission by the state of Tennessee and was put into action by an assortment of Tennessee universities and the Tennessee state department of education (Hedges). Seventy-nine elementary schools in forty-two school districts became the locations for this project for four years, and the total cost of this experiment was estimated to be near twelve million dollars (Hedges). In the experiment, kindergarten students were randomly assigned to small classes that contained thirteen to seventeen students, large classes contained twenty-two to twenty-six students, and even larger classes were assigned a full-time classroom aid (Hedges).  The study found that the increases in learning observed in the smaller classes (thirteen to seventeen students) prevailed long after the students were placed back in their average-sized classes (Hedges). Moreover, it was found that poor and African-American students appeared to experience the most learning gains from the smaller classes (Hedges). Finally, follow-up studies indicated that students who were placed in the smaller classes in their early academic years had superior academic and personal outcomes through their later school years (Bandiera). Tennessee’s Project STAR appears to offer the most credible and un-refuted evidence that smaller class sizes are crucial in primary education.

Even though extensive research, from credible sources such as Tennesee’s STAR project, seems to settle the debate over class size, recent analysis of these studies raise questions about their accuracy and validity. Although the STAR project uncovered noteworthy enhancements in student learning when class size was decreased for kindergarten through third grade, the collection of research on class size indicates a more complex concept of class size in relation to student achievement. For instance, in one investigation, the effects of small class sizes on student achievement were analyzed using the findings from STAR. Students placed in smaller classes from grades one through three showed positive improvements in reading and mathematics (Hedges). Although it is clear that smaller classes yield positive learning outcomes, it is unclear if these findings apply to all disciplines of secondary education. In addition, it was also discovered that children of minorities experienced greater benefits from small class sizes than children of non-minorities (Hedges). Therefore, even the most popular and credible sources advocating for smaller class sizes seem to draw varied conclusions from their findings.

The debate over class size is more complex than it appears on the surface due to the fact that the optimal number for a given class size is usually absent from studies and research conducted on the topic. It would be highly beneficial for teachers, parents, and administrators to know the appropriate and most rewarding number of students that should be present in a classroom at a given time.  An early analysis of class size found no difference in learning achievements when decreasing class size from forty to twenty students, but the same study found a significant increase in student learning when the class size was decreased from twenty to fifteen students (Johnson). Also, studies that centered around class sizes being reduced to twenty students or more, and studies done where many teachers were hired to increase the student-teacher ratio of a classroom did not discover substantial positive effects or any effects on student achievement (Johnson). Therefore, there are more variables to be considered when evaluating the benefits of smaller class sizes such as specific numbers of students present in a classroom as well as the ambiguous effects of increased student-teacher ratios.

Many studies involving higher education and class size exist, yet the results are anything but expected.  One study was performed at the University of Massachusetts, and it observed the relationship between class size in introductory economics courses and student performance in following intermediate economics theory courses. One hundred forty six students who had taken both courses were the subjects of the study (32.9% women; 11.6% Asians, 9.6% Blacks, 3.4% Hispanics; 89.7% full-time students, and 52.7% economics majors) (Montagna). Out of the one hundred and forty six students in this study, 58.9% had previously taken the introductory course in a large lecture setting (Montagna). The results revealed that the average grade of the large introductory eceonomics course was 2.51 and the average grade for the small economics course was 2.66 (Montagna). The results also showed that enrollment in large introductory courses did not greatly influence performance in the intermediate microeconomics course, but it did have a negative and prominent impact on performance in the intermediate macroeconomics course (Montagna). One explanation for these results could be that different cognitive skills are required for success in each course. However, this study produces results which indicate that the benefits of small classes are often dependent on other variables such as level of difficulty within a course, teaching methods, etc. Further studies conclude that large class sizes do in fact negatively impact educational outcomes, but when individual departments are analyzed on their own, many departments seem to be unaffected by class size (Cheng). For instance, in a study conducted to determine the effects of class size on alternative educational outcomes across disciplines, results showed that the fields in which larger class size decreased student learning were economics, anthropology, political science, sociology, computer science, engineering, communication, theatre, Chinese, and literature (Cheng). However, this study also measured effects on instructor recommendations as well as course recommendations. For example, while learning and course quality in communications classes are adversely affected, instructor quality is unaffected (Cheng). As these studies demonstrate there are many variables when considering class size that highlight the overall complexity to the class size debate.

Although many logical complications and refutations to the argument that smaller classes are preferred over larger have been presented, the argument for smaller class sizes is justified in its position due to extensive research and analysis of its effects on learning and increased “teacher time.” There are numerous factors that impact the teaching process, and out of all of them class size is considered to be one of the most important.  Therefore, educators and administrators should take class size and its related effects seriously (Cakmak). In one study, Croll and Hastings (two student teachers) said, “Class size effects cannot be just a matter of the number of children in a class. The number of children must have an effect on other classroom processes and activities which themselves bear more directly on learning. The most frequently offered suggestion is that the reduced number results in each child getting more teacher time”(Cakmak). According to this assertion, class size undoubtedly influences teaching methods (Cakmak). The benefits of a small class include teachers having more chances to oversee individual students more closely, and opportunities for more individualized instruction and assistance during actual classes or lectures (Cakmak). Although class size may not be considered an important factor in courses more tailored to lecture-style learning, courses that encourage critical thinking skills and advanced problem-solving techniques would benefit from a smaller setting (Booth-Butterfield). Large class settings impose additional limitations to teaching and student learning. Reece and Walker claim, “when the group is greater than twenty students, such large groups can lead to difficulties in dealing with individuals and so you may have to resort to strategies such as lecture and demonstration” (Cakmak). Therefore, large classes in a higher education setting impose additional restrictions on the delivery of the material and consequently on the students’ learning.

There are obvious emotional consequences for both students and teachers in large group settings. For example, students may feel strong feelings of alienation, frustration, and jealousy in large lectures that interrupts the achievement of goals, general learning, and an enriching educational experience (Hogan). In general, large groups are often perceived as “intimidating, inhibiting, and frustrating” (Hogan). Skills that include the ability to think, to argue, to use logic, and to engage others in a proper argument are usually not practiced in a large group, thus diminishing the targeted aims of an undergraduate education (Hogan). As class sizes increase similar processes occur to those found in large therapy sessions. For instance, anxiety levels increase making it difficult for students to ask questions or engage in the discourse of the lecture (Hogan). This can make the lecture material more difficult to understand, since students are not actively engaged in their surroundings.  Therefore, educators and administrators need to realize the emotional side effects such classes have on students’ abilities to learn and thrive at the university level.

In general, small classes in higher education increase student motivation and give instructors opportunities to assess the motivation of their students. In one study conducted with forty-one student teachers in secondary school, thirty-eight of the teachers were in agreement that the most difficult part of teaching large classes was the motivation (Cakmak). Additionally, motivated students lead to increased involvement in the classroom that yields positive learning outcomes (Cakmak). Students who are involved and engaged with their professors show an increase in learning, and engaging with faculty has a positive influence on student perseverance throughout the course.

Studies have shown that smaller class size directly impacts student performance in the classroom. However, there are certain variables that impact this claim. For instance, the negative effect of class size on student exam performance is substantial and negative when considered in relation to the smallest and largest classes (Bandiera). Figures suggest that moving the average student from a class of ten students to a class of twenty-five students leads to decrease in exam performance of approximately 12.5%.  If the class size is further increased from twenty-five students to forty-five students, there is an additional 12.5% decrease in performance (Bandiera). On the contrary, there is no effect on exam performance in a wide-range intermediate class (Bandiera). This study indicates the negative relationship between increasing class size and exam performance, but alludes to the non-existent relationship between increasing class and intermediate-sized classes.

 Due to comprehensive analysis over the past two decades the class size dilemma in higher education seems to be cliché, but there remains a prominent debate in which small classes should be the optimal solution for overall success among college students.  The implications of creating smaller classes would most likely include increased costs because of hiring new professors and teaching assistants, and creating additional space on campus necessary for a higher number of classes to occur simultaneously. Addressing the issue of large classes in universities poses a complex quandary, specifically, should universities spend the money and expand their resources in order for their students to benefit from small classes? If they chose to do so, would this negatively impact the tuition rates that Americans are already so concerned with?  Someday college students in America may have to choose between paying more for an education that includes the benefits of smaller classes or paying less and not experiencing these benefits. Despite these concerns, action should be taken to reduce class size in order to increase learning, motivation, and overall success among college students.

Works Cited

Bandiera, Oriana, Valentino Larcenese, and Imran Rasul. “The Impact of Class Size on the Performance of University Students | Vox – Research-based Policy Analysis and Commentary from Leading Economists.” Front Page | Vox., 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2011.

Booth-Butterfield, Melanie, and Robert J. Sidelinger. “Co-constructing student involvement: an examination of teacher confirmation and student-to-student connectedness in the college classroom.” Communication Education 59.2 (2010): 165+. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Cakmak, Melek. “The perceptions of student teachers about the effects of class size with regard to effective teaching process.” The Qualitative Report 14.3 (2009): 395+. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Cheng, Dorothy A. “Effects of class size on alternative educational outcomes across disciplines.” Economics of Education Review 30.5 (2011): 980+. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Chingos, Matthew M. “The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction.” Center for American Progress. Center for American Progress, 14 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

“Class Size.” Education Week American Education News Site of Record. Editorial Projects in Education, 3 Aug. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <>.

Hedges, Larry V., and Barbara Nye. “Are effects of small classes cumulative? Evidence from a Tennessee experiment.” The Journal of Educational Research 94.6 (2001): 336+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Hogan, David, and Richard Kwiatkowski. “Emotional aspects of large group teaching.” Human Relations 51.11 (1998): 1403. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Johnson, Laurene. “Does class size really matter?” District Administration Oct. 2011: 104+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Montagna, Linda G., and Linda S. Toth. “Class size and achievement in higher education: a summary of current research.” College Student Journal 36.2 (2002): 253+. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.