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Class Size Matters: Understanding the Link Between Class Size and Student Achievement

The discussion about the importance of class size has been ongoing for decades. While some still argue that class size doesn’t make a noticeable difference in the quality of education, research has shown that is not the case. Understanding the connection between class size and student achievement, as well as teacher retentions, is critical to the future of our educational system.

The Link Between Class Size and Achievement

Research into the impact of class size on student achievement has been ongoing for decades. According to an article in the Seattle Times, the effects “have been hard to isolate and measure,” which has led to disagreements over the results. The article suggested the disagreement may have more to do with benefits outweighing the costs as opposed to actual effectiveness. In fact, The National Center for Education Statistics points out that after the 2008 recession, pupil-teacher ratio increased.

Even with some disagreement about the cost effectiveness of chasing the benefits of small class size, most researches agree that it does have a positive impact, particularly on students in younger grades.

Perhaps one of the most famous studies to come to this conclusion was the Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project in the 1980s. The STAR project randomly assigned students to either small classes (13 to 17 students per teacher) or large classes (22 to 25 students per teacher). In the kindergarten years alone, the study found a “definite advantage for small classes in achievement.”

In 2011, the Brookings Institution reviewed the study and confirmed its findings that the 32% reduction in class size increased student achievement, giving those students an achievement advantage equivalent to an additional three months of education after four years.

Twenty years after the STAR project was completed, the National Education Association (NEA) published a policy brief concerning class size. The NEA examined the research on STAR students and focused on the long-term results from the follow-up studies. Some of the long-term results of the students who were in the smaller classes include:

  • Higher student achievement levels in grade seven language, reading, science, math, and social studies classes
  • More positivity reported about participating in learning
  • High school transcripts indicated that STAR students who were in smaller classes for a minimum of three years were substantially more likely to graduate from high school

These outcomes aren’t insignificant, suggesting there are many benefits to smaller class sizes. Let’s look at some in more detail.

The Benefits of Small Class Sizes

As mentioned above, smaller class sizes offer positive results. Small class sizes give both teachers and students several benefits that result in higher student achievement. Some benefits of a small class size include the following:

Better Teacher/Student Relationships

For a student, individual attention can make the difference between effectively developing skills and just coasting along. Generally, in smaller classes, students can establish stronger relationships with their instructors.

Tyrone Howard, a professor of education who writes about research into students’ relationships with their teachers, said “I think schools in many ways have put the cart before the horse. What they’ve done is they want to jump right into academics and really dismiss or minimize the importance of relationships.”

Those relationships matter to students and teachers and can lead to better outcomes for both.

More Customized Instruction

Teachers need to identify the specific problems that each student may have to be effective. In large classes, this may be a challenge for educators, not because their instruction is wrong, but because they don’t have the resources to do so.

In an article in The Edvocate, Matthew Lynch, professor of education and author, stated:

Small class sizes work because they give teachers an opportunity to offer students more personalized instruction, which is probably the reason that academic achievement goes up. Teachers don’t necessarily change what they are doing, they are just able to increase their efficacy.

Teachers who can spend more time with each student is able to tailor their teaching to specific students’ needs and, in turn, learning outcomes improve.

Classrooms Become More Collaborative

In large classes, students tend to interact with people they know. It’s easy for some students to become outsiders or for cliques to form. In smaller classes, students will engage with each other and form relationships. The effect is a cohesive group of students who support and learn from one another.

When students feel more comfortable with all their peers and their teacher, they’ll likely feel more relaxed engaging and asking questions. This can make it less likely for a student to fall behind and encourage them to become more engaged in their learning.

Topics are Explored In-Depth

Small class sizes let teachers reduce time spent on discipline and organization, meaning they spend more time with instruction. With fewer students in the classroom, teachers can explore topics in-depth and expand on themes that students show interest in.

According to a statement from the National Council of Teachers of English, “In smaller classes students spend less time off-task or disengaged from the work of the class.”

When teachers have more time to engage all their students consistently, students will likely get a deeper education on more topics. When their questions and interests can guide how a teacher dives into a topic, they’re likely to be more receptive to the lessons, as well.

Teachers Stick Around

Small class sizes make it easier to manage the learning environment and give educators a sense of pride in the classroom. Teachers are happier and feel more fulfilled when they can provide quality instruction. This means they will stick around longer, giving every school or university the benefit of expert instructors.

Class size is a frequently cited reason teachers leave their jobs, with 10% of teachers who had left the profession or moved to another school stating that class sizes were the motive for making their move.

Reducing teacher attrition is an important goal as the teacher shortage looms. Smaller class sizes are a step toward the goal of keeping experienced teachers in the profession.

Lead the Way to Better Class Sizes

Tomorrow’s teachers will undoubtedly need to take leadership roles in ensuring that education meets their student’s needs. Bethel University is ahead of the curve with small class sizes that have a positive impact on student achievement.

Our online master’s degree in educational leadership program features a curriculum designed around the needs of working educators and builds on your current knowledge to help you advance your career. You’ll study topics like community relations, ethics, meeting the needs of diverse learners, budgeting, research, and more.  With accelerated seven-week courses and six start dates per year, you’ll be able to begin, pause, or expedite your learning at any time. Plus, our full-time program can be completed in as little as one year.

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