Does Class Size Matter? — #EdChat Summary: 01/31/12

Topic: Depending on whose research we read, class size does or doesn’t matter. Why does class size matter to you?

I hadn’t thought about class size in a very long time. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I devoted the issue any serious thought. As a student, I think we don’t really question it. We have to accept classes of whatever size we get placed in, so we might as well just roll with it. And now that I’m out of school and only reading/discussing education from afar, I must confess that the issue is not one that often rises to the forefront.

Is that a bad thing? Maybe. Perhaps the issue deserves to be brought up once in a while – and luckily it was this week!

Right off the bat, it seemed like the actual topic for this week’s discussion was discarded in favor of a more specific one. Very few people were making the case that large classes were not a problem for teachers (and even the ones that were had to qualify it by saying “certain subjects/lessons lend themselves to large classes at certain times”), and so the topic really turned to: What is the optimal class size and how do we achieve that number while balancing shrinking education budgets?

This is something that happens in #edchat sometimes. Either the question has too many parts and we spend the entire hour discussing only half of it, or it’s too general and we spend a few minutes in the very beginning answering the specific question before moving on to weightier (but related) issues.

Main themes from the discussion:

  • Classes are definitely too big! No doubt about it, teachers are pretty stressed about the number of students assigned to them each year. Classes of 30-45 students are hard to control and make providing each student with individual attention quite difficult. Not only that, but having 3-5 sections each semester means that each teacher is responsible for grading hundreds of assignments each week! This puts huge strains on a teacher’s free time and on the time that they have available to plan lessons. Less preparation means less effective teaching, and that’s a problem for everyone.
  • There is a such thing as “too small.” But before we start a revolution and demand that all teachers have no more than a dozen students under their care each year (so they can really get to know them and help them individually as much as possible), we need to remember that sometimes larger classes are beneficial. After all, it’s not just factual learning and understanding we want. It’s cooperation and teamwork too. Larger classes do present more opportunities when managed properly. So what is the optimal size? It seemed to me that it ranged from 10 (for special needs and very high level courses) to about 25 (for average courses), based on the tweets this week. Some teachers can handle more; others prefer less. It’s often a question of experience.
  • The real problem is teaching methods, not class size. One thing is certain: you can’t teach a big class the same way you would teach a small class. The dynamic is totally different. And while it may be optimal to campaign for smaller classes overall, right now we’re sort of stuck with what we’ve got and we might as well make the most of it. This means taking the time to adequately prepare lessons that are appropriate for the number of students that you are teaching. Doing that is actually in our sphere of influence, after all.
  • To properly prepare teachers, we need to set aside more time for preparation. Good preparation takes time, and no #edchat would be complete without plenty of reminders about how busy teachers already are. Still, lesson prep is one of those things that you need to make time for, one way or another. It might mean giving up some free time or cutting back on the number of assignments that you grade, but it needs to happen – especially if you find yourself with classes that are just a bit too big. I saw one tweeter propose higher salaries for teachers with more students. I think that makes sense, since it clearly is more work. Another suggested slowly increasing class size (to a point) based on experience levels. That also seems wise.
  • It’s always about the budget. In the end, though, the final deciding factor is always the budget. After all, it’s entirely possible that the higher-ups already know that the optimal class size is somewhere between 10 and 25. They’re probably just bound by the budget (and the size of their school building) to form classes of 30, 35, and 40. It’s just the sad reality. Accepting that, it really does make sense to search out other ways of effectively reaching each student, because that’s the bottom line goal. And I think, if you go through the archive of this week’s #edchat, there are plenty of good ideas for doing just that.

My favorite tweets from the discussion:

<> Classes are too big!

CTuckerEnglish I hate feeling like I am scrambling to keep my head above water with huge classes. It tends to suck the creative energy out of me!

mikevigilant We only have 30 comps per lab but some classes with 35 kids have 5 who don’t know what to do!

jguarr Budget increased our class sizes this year. Went from 30 student max to 35. HUGE difference.

michellek107 in large classrooms, children with dominant personalities can “monopolize” teachers’ time. Quiet children fade.

katetheteacher For my job, I pull out struggling students for individual attention. 1:1 time is crucial for some kids, & lost in larger classrooms.

JasonFlom If the goal is a #wholechild education, class size definitely matters. If “student achievement” is test scores, maybe it doesn’t.

tomwhitby Increasing class size is a way to reduce cost. It has nothing to do with quality education. Larger classes cost less, so we deal with it.

<> Class size isn’t the end-all, be-all…

lemino I’m not a teacher, but as a mom I can see class size doesn’t matter. The method does.

MertonTech  I feel like as experience increases, class size can increase as well. But there is a top limit.

drdouggreen We need to be flexible with class size. For movies/lectures, fill the auditorium. For other activities, small groups/1:1.

chlupa Why does a student need tons of teacher attention for personalized ed? Isn’t the point collaboration and sharing?

QZLPatriotHawk It’s not that larger classes can’t learn; it’s that classroom management is more difficult if you approach teaching the same way.

davidwees Is a focus on reducing class size the wrong place to focus? What about sufficient time to collaborate, learn, and prepare?

RogoNic A class can also be too small in my opinion. You lose the energy and opportunity to learn off others. Gets a bit intense.

AGMichal I used to teach at a very small school. Often had classes of 6-8 for some activities; I wished I had more students.

<> A few resources:

cybraryman1 Can infusing some Self-Directed Learning http://t.co/I5nudKaG in a large class help teachers?

politicalteach EdWeek article on class size laws: http://t.co/ZK4IuNtf.

vanroet A blog about 1:1 schools: http://t.co/nBWxYq9b.

politicalteach Looks interesting, regarding class size effects on achievement: http://t.co/mcR0T1R1.

politicalteach Reducing class sizes was one of Finland’s moves toward improving their education system:  http://t.co/tTacVOlX.

cybraryman1 I had success in large class when I used Cooperative Learning projects:  http://t.co/oHX8gZBR.

To follow the complete discussion, look for the full archive here.  They’re usually posted up by the end of the week.

Looking to discuss #edtech in depth? Check out the LinkedIn group: Edutech Trends, Visions, Passions.

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2 Responses to Does Class Size Matter? — #EdChat Summary: 01/31/12
  1. Tech Tchr

    I have realized that when I put in more hours at home, I am effectively reducing class size. What does reduced class size give you? More time with each student. So when I work 12 hour days, I am compensating for the large class size by overworking. It is the only way I can spend the necessary amount of time with each student and their work.
    When I complete a hands on lesson/project with a small class early in the day, I just can’t seem to get through the learning activity later in the day when I have a large class. Want me to lecture? I could have 100 students, but they won’t learn.
    26 year veteran.

  2. John

    It did hear some people saying things like that in the chat. I think it’s a very valid point. Each student requires a certain amount of time. Throwing more into the mix is only acceptable up to a certain point.

    What is your optimal student number, would you say?

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