Class Sizes

As a secondary education mathematics major, class size is always something that comes into discussion in my education classes.  It seems that some of my professors have different opinions on this subject, and I want to know what is really the best for students, considering I will be in the classroom teaching these varying class sizes in four years.  Coming from a relatively big high school to a huge university, I personally never minded big class sizes, but a lot of districts, including my own, always fought for smaller class sizes anyways.  The people fighting, like school board members and politicians, insist that smaller class sizes are beneficial for everyone and that students will learn more with more individualized attention, but I am not too sure that it is always necessary to have super small classes.  I believe that students learn from each other and group work is essential, especially in math where teaching someone else how to do something can actually help you learn it yourself.  My hypothesis is that class size does not matter, as long as the students comfortably fit in the classroom, after the students’ initial foundation is built in the elementary and middle school years.  Once the students have a solid foundation to build off of, they should not need as much individualized attention.  I also believe that students should be able to self-regulate their learning by high school, and if they know that they need more individualized attention to go over a certain topic, they can stay after school or go to office hours in order to get the help that they need. Since this extra help is more readily available than in the earlier years of education, I think that smaller class sizes are not nearly as important in high school and beyond.

After doing some research, I was able to come across this meta-analysis, a study where multiple studies are taken into consideration and compared to come to a more confident conclusion, and I found that this question of the effects of class sizes is not an easy question to answer.  Many studies have been conducted on the question of class size and a lot of them came to very different conclusions.  In this meta-analysis, Ofsted’s study is referenced where it was found that it was not the class size that affected the students’ achievement but the teacher’s ability to teach.  However, in the Blatchford and Mortimore study it was found that there was a correlation between class size and student achievement showing that in the first few years of education smaller class sizes produced higher achieving students.  There are also other studies that come to more inconsistent conclusions about the effects of class sizes on students.

The problem with studying and conducting experiments on class size is all of the variables that are different from school to school and all of the different elements of teaching.  Looking at classes of different sizes taught by different teachers leaves too many elements not in control to be able to draw conclusions and be confident that these conclusions are coming strictly from class size.  One way to test this would be to have the same teacher teach two classes, one of a large size and one of a small size, with similar students in each class, like being from the same socioeconomic class and growing up with the same educational background, and giving both classes the same test to measure student achievement.  This would have to be repeated multiple times all around the world so that results could be generalized to the population.  Here, the null hypothesis could be that small class sizes have no beneficial effects on student achievement and the alternative hypothesis could be that small class sizes have beneficial effects on student achievement

Another interesting point in this meta-analysis is that teachers might just not know how to teach in each environment.  Each class size comes with different benefits.  Teachers with small class sizes have different opportunities than teachers with large class sizes, but being able to make the most of the class sizes is what really matters.  Class size might not be the issue here; it might be a that teacher’s ability to teach larger classes is underdeveloped.  Classrooms are very complicated systems, and based on the studies that have been done, there is not much reason to believe that class size is solely the reason behind the conclusions being drawn.  Perhaps the answer to this question on class sizes is not to raise taxes and hire more teachers in order to decrease class sizes, but to hire better teachers who are more highly trained to teach in either situation and who know how to make the most out of the opportunities in both classroom environments.

Looking back on my hypothesis, I now realize that it is too broad of a question, especially because of all of the different conclusions that have been drawn on this topic.  Even though according to Blatchford and Mortimore my hypothesis was partially correct, this has not been replicated enough and other conclusions have been made that do not support this finding. Class size is something that is very hard to study and in order to solve this question, experiments and observational studies will have to be planned very carefully in order to just be testing class size, and I do not see this happening in the near future.  Either way, I know that with my wonderful education here at Penn State, I will be ready no matter what class size to teach my students and make the most out of all the opportunities I am given.

Image Links:

4 thoughts on “Class Sizes

  1. Dominic DeCinque

    Class size is something I really considered during my college search. My high school had smaller classes, so coming to a large school like Penn State, famous for lecture classes, was sort of a gamble. Personally, my larger class sizes haven’t really had any negative effect on me, but I do think they can encourage more distractions, such as cell phone use. Even though you believe your hypothesis is broad, I think it is reasonable. Class size shouldn’t matter, because there are endless education options for people of all tastes: those who learn better in a smaller setting and those who can thrive in a crowded environment. This blog on the New York Times opened up the same question, and received many different answers from students with different preferences, exemplifying that class size can be a subjective matter.

  2. Lucille Laubenstein

    Growing up, I went to school in a large school district, where the issue of class sizes was a constant battle, and one that was frequently discussed. This meta-analysis opened my eyes to how truly complex this issue was. Before reading this, I was completely of the mindset that smaller class sizes were beneficial to students learning, and as seen in the meta-analysis, I would have been able to find data supporting that. But the wonderful thing about this study is how it shows the complete mix of results. I would have never thought to look for something like this, in regards to this topic! I found an article which looked at another aspect which could be a contributing factor to student achievement to the demographic of the classroom. Therefore adding yet another element to this complicated topic.

  3. Maura Katherine Maguire

    Really interesting topic. I connect with this topic personally due to my small high school experience. I attended an all girls high school with a total of 99 girls in my grade. Due to this small number our class sizes were extremely low and we were given almost one on one teaching. I loved my small classes and was really nervous to come to such a large school and adjust. While I have found that I can handle the larger lecture halls, nothing beats a small class environment.

  4. Brendan Mironov


    What a very interesting topic that you chose. Back in high school, I remember this being a very hot button issue. In fact, there was actually a bill proposed in my home state, Florida, to limit class sizes to a certain amount because legislatures thought that there was a correlation between class sizes and academic performance. I completely agree with your analysis that this question is extremely broad. There are so many third variables like the skill of the teacher, the age and gender of the students, and what kind of learners there are. I thought you did a good job addressing that it might not be the room that the teacher teaches in, but how the teacher teaches that is the problem. Some kids can be visual learners while others may be verbal learners. I think that visual learners will be better off in small class sizes, while verbal learners could be better off in larger classes. Check out this article on the different learning styles.

Leave a Reply