Tuesday, 11 November 2014

evidence that learning is better in smaller classes

So this is something that most of us intuitively know: class size impacts learning. Yet, I have never been able to find a peer-reviewed paper that explicitly states that better student learning outcomes occur with smaller classes. I finally found a review that does a meta-analysis of a number of published studies and comes to the conclusion that small class size produces a demonstrably better learning environment for our students (Cuseo 2007).

So what is the sweet spot for student learning? On this issue Joe Cuseo is carefully vague invoking the disparity of study methods. However, he goes out on a limb to state that his reading of the literature indicates that an enrolment of 15 students is probably as big as a class can get before student learning outcomes are adversely affected. Having stated that, he goes on to explain that this needs further study.

The major findings of Cuseo's meta-analysis are (these are the sub-headings in the first section of his paper):
  1. Large class size increases faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction.
  2. Large classes reduce students’ level of active involvement in the learning process (and both Weimer 2013 and Ambrose et al 2010 have argued that active learning is key to improving student learning outcomes).
  3. Large class size reduces the frequency and quality of instructor interaction with and feedback to students.
  4. Large-class settings reduce students’ depth of thinking inside the classroom.
  5. Large class size limits the breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning outside the classroom.
  6. Students’ academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades) are lowered in courses with large class size.
  7. Students report less course satisfaction in large-sized classes.
  8. Students give lower overall ratings (evaluations) for course instruction delivered in large classes.
The problem with finding #1 is that it has been shown that didactic lectures are not really good for anything else other than information transfer (Bligh 1998). Finding #2 is a problem because there is much evidence indicating that increased student engagement and active learning positively impacts student learning outcomes (Weimer 2013, Amborse et al 2010). Granted, there are methods of active learning that can be employed with large classes to ameliorate these problems (see the resources below by Weimer 2013, Ambrose et al 2010, Bain 2004, and Bligh 1998). Finding #3 above is corroborated by another meta-analysis of the literature showing that instructor-student relationships impact student learning outcomes in a manner characterized as person-centered teaching (Cornelius-White 2007). Attending to the the relationship with their students is something that has been observed to be the practice of the best instructors (Bain 2004). Relatedly, I also wonder how the size of a class impacts the ability of an instructor to motivate their students. Christensen and Menzel (1998) found that both verbal and nonverbal immediacy behaviours of instructors impacts students' perceived learning.

So for those of us who have experienced the joy of the seminar and the pain of the lecture theater, you now have a review of the published literature that shows that seminar sized classes are the better learning environment for students.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the Use of Lectures? 5th ed. Exeter: Intellect.

Christensen, L. J., & Menzel, K. E. (1998). The linear relationship between student reports of teacher immediacy behaviors and perceptions of state motivation, and of cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning. Communication Education, 47(1), 82–90.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.

Cuseo, J. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. The Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), 5–21. 

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2nd ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.