In October, during the final 2012 U.S. presidential debate, the topic of class size came up within the context of global competitiveness. Although the candidates were mainly arguing the benefits of small classes in K-12 education, the issue deserves attention within higher education. With the growth of online classes, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), and with the creep upward in class size of many institutions that have faced budget constraints in recent years, it is worth asking whether class size matters in college courses. Do the learning objectives, teaching methods, teacher standards, and workload expectations vary, depending upon class size? Do students’ learning, motivation, and work habits in large classes match those in smaller classes?
The IDEA Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve colleges and universities committed to improving learning, teaching, and leadership performance, retains an archived database of student ratings that provides the opportunity to explore the effects of class size on faculty and student perceptions of learning and instruction. Student ratings of instruction collected from 2002-11 include undergraduate and graduate classes from public and private colleges across all regions of the continental United States. Approximately 40 percent come from master’s level institutions, 20 percent each from bachelor’s and doctoral level, 5 percent from associate, and 5 percent other. The data include ratings collected online and on paper, in face-to-face and online classes.
In our ratings system, the instructor indicates the course enrollment. Instructors also rate the relevance of 12 learning objectives (minor or no importance, important, essential) for the course. In addition, they have the option of answering questions about their approach to instruction, course requirements, and various course circumstances. On the student ratings form, students rate their progress on the same 12 objectives, the frequency of 20 teaching methods, and various course, teacher, and student characteristics. They also provide an overall rating of the course, instructor, and their attitudes toward the field of study.
Historically, the IDEA Center has categorized class size as small (10-14), medium (15-34), large (35-49), and very large (50+) when preparing technical reports. This same grouping was applied to the current analyses, which resulted in the following distribution of classes: small (63,622), medium (349,313), large (48,916), and very large (27,503).
The first thing evident is that the objectives instructors choose to emphasize vary by size of class. Instructors in very large classes are more likely to emphasize learning factual knowledge and less likely to stress developing communication skills (both oral and written) than are those in small and medium classes. This is especially true in general education courses.
As one might expect, the primary approach to instruction varies as well. One of the reasons instructors in large and very large classes emphasize the learning of factual knowledge may be because they rely upon lecture as the primary approach to instruction. Instructors in very large classes (about 86 percent) are more likely to lecture than those in small (43 percent) and medium-size (54 percent) classes. Still, lecture remains the most frequent teaching method regardless of class size.
Teaching methods differ as well. According to students, instructors in small and medium classes are more likely to involve students in hands-on projects and real-life activities, assign projects that require original or creative thinking, form teams or discussion groups to facilitate learning, and ask students to help each other understand concepts or ideas. Perhaps most troubling is that students in large and very large classes report the instructor is less likely to inspire them to set and achieve goals that really challenge them.
The reason for such lack of inspiration and challenge may relate to differences in course characteristics. Students in very large classes report fewer non-reading assignments than do those in small and medium-size classes. They also rate instructors lower on their achievement standards and their expectations that students share in responsibility for learning. So, the case could be made that students perceive larger classes as less rigorous.
But don’t assume students are champing at the bit to enroll in courses they perceive as less rigorous. Students in small classes consistently report a stronger desire to take the course than those in very large classes. Moreover, they report stronger work habits. And it’s not just the students who perceive such class-size differences. Fifty-three percent of instructors in small classes believe the level of student enthusiasm had a positive impact on learning compared to only 38 percent of instructors in very large classes.
Such enthusiasm translates into higher student ratings of progress on relevant objectives. Student average progress on course objectives the instructor rates as either essential or important is more than one-half standard deviation higher in small compared to very large classes. The advantage for small classes is especially evident in developing creative capacities (writing, inventing, designing, performing in art, music, drama, etc.) and communication skills (oral and written), where student progress is about a full standard deviation higher compared to very large classes. For medium-size classes, the advantage is nearly the same. When you compare small and medium-size classes with classes enrolling 100 or more students (of which there are over 6,000 in the database), the differences are even more staggering.
The smallest gaps in student progress between small, medium, and very large classes are found in gaining factual knowledge and learning fundamental principles and theories. The gaps do not even increase markedly in classes exceeding 100.
A finding particularly relevant for general education, where students sometimes get their first impressions of a discipline, is the relationship between class size and student attitudes toward the field of study. Students in small and medium classes report more positive attitudes about the discipline as a result of taking the course than do those in very large classes.
These effects of class size are not terribly surprising. The IDEA Center has known for years that class size makes a difference, which is why course enrollment has long been one of the variables we use to adjust student ratings scores. Moreover, recommended actions presented to instructors in the individual IDEA class report are made based on comparisons between the class’s average rating for a teaching method and other classes of similar size. The effectiveness of a teaching method depends not only on which objective is being emphasized but also on how many students are enrolled in the course. However, as reported previously and confirmed in the current dataset, student work habits and motivation are more important predictors of achievement on relevant learning objectives than is class size. The key is for faculty to encourage such productive behaviors in students regardless of how many are enrolled in the class. But in large and very large classes this is apparently a more daunting task.
Even in higher education, then, class size makes a difference. In very large classes, instructors are more likely to emphasize factual knowledge and less likely to develop communication skills. In turn, in very large classes students are less likely to report progress on communication skills and creative capacities, such as writing, inventing, designing, and performing. The types of learning where students in very large classes approach the progress of those in small and medium classes is in developing basic background in the subject matter.
As policy makers and institutions of higher education continue to explore the possibility of offering fewer sections with larger enrollments (including MOOCs and many other forms of online education and in-person education with large enrollments), the effects of class size on teacher behaviors and student learning, motivation, and work habits should be part of the conversation. Admittedly, the increasing sophistication of learning analytics and data mining has the potential of making MOOCs and very large classes more personalized. The instructor could have the ability to detect when a student is struggling and to provide targeted feedback and additional assignments to foster improvement, something that was previously likely only in small-to-medium size classes. Whether such an approach will support the development of creative capacities and communication skills remains to be seen.
The additional costs of smaller classes in a higher education system that is already viewed to be too expensive are clearly recognized. Nonetheless the self-reported learning benefits and positive attitudes toward smaller classes should not be ignored. Although our data are based on student self-report, many of the findings noted above merit testing using direct measures of student outcomes. At the very least, having a better understanding of the qualities of small and medium classes that support greater learning might improve the effectiveness of larger classes.
Steve Benton is senior research officer at the IDEA Center and emeritus professor of educational psychology at Kansas State University. Bill Pallett is the former president of the IDEA Center.
With two high-profile higher education cases under consideration, labor board says it will carry on as usual despite an appeals court's ruling that calls into question the legitimacy of its appointees.
Faculty leaders are questioning why the University of Toledo is putting money into an economic development unit -- University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises -- when budget cuts are increasing class sizes and eliminating sections, the Toledo Blade reported. Critics also are pointing to the $307,000 paid last year to Rick Stansley Jr., a former chair of the university's board. University officials said that there is no improper conflict, and that the agency is needed to promote the region's economy. But Mike Dowd, president of the Faculty Senate, said: "I don’t know how many universities have the former chairman of the board of trustees take a paid position from the university. Is providing funding for Rick Stansley’s activities a higher priority than providing the resources for the instructional mission of the university?"
In his inaugural address, President Obama referred repeatedly to education – but exclusively to education in STEM disciplines, as if only those fields had a defensible public purpose. Sadly, this is no aberration: in December the White House issued a report entitled "Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise," which completely overlooked research in the humanities and social sciences, even in its brief history of the growth of research at American universities.
Such a narrow focus is surprising, as the president himself apparently consults historians (and probably other scholars); and it is counterproductive, whether in strict dollars and cents terms or broader ones. Some politicians have gone further, aggressively asserting that various humanities and social science disciplines are useless, and attempting to impose higher tuitions on students who major in them, making it all the more important that those who know better actively affirm the value of teaching and research beyond the STEM fields.
I will focus here on the case for history: it is what I know best, and since history straddles the line between humanities and social sciences, many arguments for its importance apply to various allied fields. One might loosely group these into three categories, ranging from the most social scientific to the most humanistic. The first applies to lessons drawn from circumstances relatively close to our own; the second to learning about times and places we know are quite different. The third applies to research showing that some currently accepted ideas are actually fairly novel, and that people not so different from us saw did without them; engaging the concepts they used instead may help us see additional possibilities in the world, whether for good or ill.
Examples of the first category underlie almost any sound public policy debate, as well as many private deliberations. Take, for example, the 2009 stimulus bill. By itself, no mathematical calculation could assess the relative accuracy of the more-or-less Keynesian models suggesting that the stimulus would help the economy and the "real business cycle" models, which predicted that it would be an expensive waste. The difference lay in historical research about how various modern economies had responded to historically specific policy initiatives. Other examples abound, though most are less well-known: closest to home in this regard would be evaluating options for STEM investment in light of the vast literature on what has given rise to specific clusters of innovation in the past, and which innovations proved most beneficial. One would also expect development efforts to gain from examining research on past relationships among, say, education, urbanization, birthrates, and investment.
The benefits of research into the importance of understanding differences in the context of policy decisions abound, with special clarity emerging in what we might call "area studies" knowledge – an enormous part of the growth of U.S. research universities after WWII. Surely we could have saved lives and money had policy-makers known more about religious differences within Iraqi society, the political and social history of Afghanistan, or class relations and popular nationalism in Vietnam before military interventions in those places. The same, I would argue, goes for using research into the evolution of Chinese notions of ethnicity, nationality, race, and geopolitics to understand likely governmental and popular reactions to possible American policies on Tibet, trade, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and so on.
Perhaps less obvious, but equally important, is the usefulness of research that shows that many ideas we may take to be "natural," or at least of very long standing, are actually relatively new.. Some of these insights may be "just" a contribution to increased self-understanding, but others bear directly on public issues. Urgent debates over how fixed the concept of "marriage" has been come first to mind, but there are many more actual and potential examples. Recognizing that the term "ethnic group" is barely 75 years old reminds us how mutable are our understandings of the basis and implications of human groupings; that "gross national product" is of roughly the same vintage suggests maximizing that particular measurement is not inevitably the paramount goal of economic policy.
It hardly seems a stretch to think that a world facing our current challenges might benefit from awareness of other ways that people have thought about the relationship of work, citizenship, adult status, "independence" and dignity, or about consumption, economic growth, leisure and the nature of progress. Or to take some narrower examples, consider the implications of learning how relatively recently life insurance went from seeming like a morally dubious gambling on death to a taken-for-granted tool for managing risk. Or that, while (as Thomas Ricks noted in a recent Atlantic) almost no U.S. generals were removed from their commands for poor performance during Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, many were so removed during World War II – suggesting that the recent situation does not represent an inevitable feature of government, much less of hierarchy generally. Historical knowledge of this kind does not provide lessons as straightforward as “deficit spending can work,” but it can add significantly to our understandings of what is possible, for better or worse, and how things may become, or cease to be, unthinkable.
Research that produces these results, both testing earlier certainties and responding to new questions , thus seems a useful, even necessary complement to research in the STEM fields. Fortunately, most historical research is also relatively cheap, but it does not thrive on complete neglect.
Kenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of History at the University of Chicago and president of the American Historical Association. The views expressed here are his alone.
The University of Pittsburgh Press is printing new copies of two collections of poetry by Richard Blanco, the inaugural poet selected by President Obama, and the press is preparing to release a new volume, which will include the inaugural poem, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Orders are coming in fast. The books currently available from Pitt are City of a Hundred Fires and Looking for the Gulf Motel.
Dolours Price, who was once a key figure in the Irish Republican Army, was found dead in her home Thursday, and her death could change a fight over oral history records held at Boston College, the Associated Press reported. Scholars have been fighting to prevent the papers about the conflict in Northern Ireland from being turned over to British authorities, who have demanded access to the documents, saying that they are needed for criminal investigations. Many scholars have urged courts to block the records' release, saying that pledges to those interviewed -- including Price -- to maintain their confidentiality for set periods of time should not be broken. It is unclear how the death of Price -- which some are suggesting was suicide -- will affect the legal issues of the case, an appeal of which has been filed by researchers with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ed Moloney, who led the collection of the oral history records, and Anthony McIntyre, who conducted the interviews, pledged to continue to fight the release of the papers. "Throughout the last two years of our fight to prevent her interviews being handed over to the police in Belfast, our greatest fear was always for the health and wellbeing of Dolours,’’ Moloney and McIntyre said in a statement. ‘‘Now that she is no longer with us, perhaps those who initiated this legal case can take some time to reflect upon the consequences of their action.’’