Posted by: drbrucepk | March 31, 2008

Class Size and Learning

I came across an article in Education Weekthe other day about class size and learning. Here’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly over the years. Generally, teachers will argue t hat the smaller the class, the higher the achievement and/or on-task time. International schools usually accept this argument as they work to keep class sizes at a minimum and use their student-teacher ratios as a selling point to parents and prospective teachers.

A new series of studies suggest that there is some foundation to these beliefs. These studies were presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

It’s long been argued by studies of elementary students that students in classes with 20 or fewer students do better than students in larger classes. The results of a study in the United Kingdom of both elementary and secondary students show that students in smaller classes are on-task a greater amount of time than students in larger classes. The UK results show that this is especially true for lower-achieving students in secondary schools. For an increase of every 5 students, on-task time decreases by nearly a quarter. The British researchers, however, did not come up with a threshold (such as 15 or 20 students maximum in a class) like some studies. That is, their studies suggested that any decrease in class size helps.

However, a study done in Hong Kong of 7,000 students did not show any significant increase in on-task time related to a reduction in class size. It has been suggested that this is due to Hong Kong students being on-task most of the time as a rule. The study showed that one-to-one teacher interaction with individual students was just as frequent in classes of 20 – 25 as it was in classes of 32-37. The author of the study, Maurice Galton of the UK, said that this is because Chinese teachers have a system of keeping track of who they interact with on a class roster. He did note, however, that more students were likely to ask for extra help outside of class in the lower size classrooms.

So, here are two studies which give somewhat opposing results.  Is this the result of cultural differences in the students or teachers or parents? What does this say about the arguments for smaller class sizes? What do you as teachers and administrators think?



  1. Having taught in a small international school in Indonesia and a large Australian state school, I do belive that class size and culture affect learning in that I wished that I could help top 10% and bottom 10% fo the class more but felt most of my time was focused on the middle 80%. I felt it difficult to provide all inclusive lessons – although I tried my best.

    The contrary to the small class size of 10-15 that I had in Indonesia, plus 2..yes TWO teaching assistants (local professional teachers ) really allowed me to set up and implement learning centres and really allow us to ‘teach’. Although comparing a state school in Australia with a private school in Asia is really apples and oranges, I think all the children want to learn but I felt I lacked the opportunity and time to really get through to some of the learners in Australia. having said that I have been in a local Indonesian state school clasrroom of 45 chidlren and I really could not see alot of meaningful interaction there – but then again thats only a few times I was exposed to this so I may be wrong.

    My conclussion – class sizes from 10-15 are optimal, with at least TA if possible. Any less and you run the risk of not enough interaction, groupwork etc, any more and you run the risk of chaos and learners not reciving the necessery support they ,might need.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jay. I agree that 10-15 is an optimal number. We used 17 as our cut off point in Pakistan. After that we looked at adding an additional class. Large classes are certainly workable, but the quality of the interaction tends to decrease. On the other hand, a class of 3 like my last algebra class can be lacking the critical mass necessary for the cross-stimulation that can make a class really interesting.

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