Does Class Size Matter?

Steady, personalized attention is key to ensure that children are receiving the support they
need academically, socially, and emotionally. Small class sizes and low teacher to student
ratios have been proven to be adept in providing this assistance.

At the university level, class sizes enjoy a tremendous range. Even small, liberal arts
colleges offer introductory courses with hundreds of students. Courses can range from
one to 1000 students depending on the particular subject and university.

College pamphlets are littered with statistics on class sizes. It is impossible to attend a
college information session or campus tour without hearing a student or administration
officer boast about small class sizes. Are these small classes really worth the hype?
A lecture-based course with 800 students could certainly be more interesting and
informative than a discussion-based course with ten students if the professor is passionate
and knowledgeable and if the student takes initiative by actively participating, asking good
questions, and taking advantage of opportunities to meet with their professor in one-on-one
settings. Additionally, large universities usually split up classes with more than fifty students
into smaller discussion sessions led by a teaching assistant. This allows for students to reap
the benefits of an immersive lecture while receiving another variety of academic stimulation
from interpersonal discussion and question-asking. However, this scenario requires that the
student be an active participant, and this not always easy in such large classes. A recent article
in Science Magazine written by journalist Aleszu Bajak cites a 2014 Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America study and endorses intimate,
discussion-oriented courses while railing against large, lecture-based courses. He notes
that lectures did not effectively engage students and could not help them actually retain the
information that was being taught.

In many instances, professionals and laypeople alike agree upon a specific, idyllic number
for class size. The most common responses tend to hover between 12 and 15 students.
This reasoning is typically supported by two major factors: opportunity for lively discussion
and opportunity for personal attention from the instructor. A discussion-based course with
thirty students, for example, would overwhelm and shut out students who do not feel
comfortable voicing their opinions in a large group setting or vying for the spotlight against
more outgoing students. On the other hand, a class of five students might not have the
right level of energy needed for engaging intellectual discussion.

Caps on class sizes are usually very logical, especially in pre-secondary education.
Huge classes in primary and secondary schools can be mentally taxing for both students
and teachers. However, large classes should not be quite so demonized. Context is still
important; classes (and school in general) are what a student makes of them.