Considering Class Size and Student Achievement

governance teaching learning
Tuesday, 15 January, 2013 - 15:24

This article focuses on the pros and cons of having smaller and larger classrooms in schools and other factors contributing to effective teaching and learning

Worldwide, average class size and student-teacher ratio are considered carefully by parents selecting schools for their children, while education experts consider them critically when evaluating a healthy education system. In South Africa, class size is often cited as a cause of poor learning outcomes.

But, points out Tshikululu Social Investment’s Joyce Wanjogu, researchers have not agreed on the optimal student-teacher ratio and class size, and there is no clear indication in the literature as to what number actually constitutes a large class or a small class.

Proponents of small class sizes and small student-to-teacher ratios argue that these have the following advantages:

  • Better, individualised attention to the student, helping the overall development of the child. It is argued that it is easy for a teacher to teach, evaluate and give feedback if there are a smaller number of learners in a classroom;
  • Researchers such as Peter Blatchford and Peter Mortimore argue that learners in large classes tend to spend less time on class assignments than students in smaller classes. Students in smaller classes also tend to spend more time on schoolwork; and
  • Large class sizes are associated with reduced teacher attention, more chaotic classes, and loss of interest in what is taught.

However, those that argue for large class sizes propose the following:

  • Increased opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other. Students learn from each other’s questions and remarks. Conversely, fewer students would mean limited interaction;
  • Increased competition among students and greater motivation to work hard to perform well. It is argued that motivation to succeed will be lost or reduced if there are too few students in the class; and
  • Increased exposure for students. School is the first opportunity for students to step out of their homes, make new friends and interact with others. If there are fewer students in the class, the chances of finding great friends, interacting with others, and learning new things is often reduced.

Research shows that actual value of an optimal student-to-teacher ratio depends upon multiple factors including:

Age of the child:

The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project found that a smaller class size had a positive effect during the lower grades or early school years. Researchers Alan Krueger and Dianne Whitmore conducted a follow-up analysis and found that these positive effects lasted as learners moved to higher grades. Advisory groups in the United States push state regulatory agencies to lower student-to-teacher ratios for four-year-olds, from 18:1 to 14:1. The STAR study showed that there was no evidence about class size effects in later or higher grades.

Subjects taught:

The STAR project concluded that higher student-to-teacher ratios had a consistently negative effect on student achievement when learning language skills. Rosalind Levacic and other researchers conducted a study on Key Stage 3 and found that reduction in the student-teacher ratio had a statistically significant positive effect on math achievement.

Quality of the teacher:

Researchers such as Jane Benbow, Adela Mizrachi, Dan Oliver and Laisha Said-Moshiro argue that large class sizes are an inevitable feature of education systems in developing countries. They propose that learning outcomes be improved by enhancing the capability of teachers and school leaders to handle this reality, and by identifying ways for students to be successful. In addition, findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment show that reductions in class size are generally expensive and are a less efficient spending choice for improving learning outcomes than, for example, investing in the quality of teachers. Joseph Tobin, David Wu and Dana Davidson propose that where high ratios are unavoidable, instead of attempting to use a small-class model of instruction, it would be better to re-evaluate pedagogical strategies against, for example, those used in large-group preschools in Japan. This can also be argued for higher levels of education.

Learners’ socio-economic status:

Muhammad Dahar proposes that in rural areas, unlike in urban areas, it is a combination of weaker prior ability, weaker socio-economic status, and weaker prior school environment that lowers academic achievement and so smaller classes may benefit specific groups of students, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Barbara Nye, Larry Hedges and Spyros Konstantopoulos also found that small class sizes were associated to some extent with higher test scores, especially for minority students.

Cultural values:

Researchers such as John Biggs, Lixian Jin and Martin Cortazzi found that despite large class sizes in some Asian countries, students in these countries consistently obtain high scores in international math achievement tests. They argued that Japanese and Chinese teachers note little relationship between class size and learning outcomes in schools. John Biggs proposed that the success of large classes in China and Japan is due to the central role of groups in the Confucian heritage.

At best, research indicates that the issue of class size should not be looked at without interrogating other resource inputs, such as the quality of the teacher, the quality of the teaching material, and the numbers of hours available for teaching, among others.

In South Africa, providing training for teachers with the requisite techniques to manage large classes may be more cost-effective than attempting to increase the number of teachers, given the current teacher shortages. Reduced class sizes should perhaps be considered for maths, science and language subjects only.

In addition, the role of technology should be explored in more detail, especially in terms of how its use can mitigate some of the disadvantages associated with large class sizes.

- Joyce Wanjogu is client relationship manager at Tshikululu Social Investments (TSI). This article first appeared on the TSI website.

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