School & District Management

Students Observed to Be ‘On Task’ Less as Class Size Grows

By Debra Viadero — April 01, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A new British study quantifies and confirms what many teachers have long believed: Students tend to be “off task” more often when they are in larger classes.

The report, by researchers from the University of London Institute of Education, was one of several studies on the educational effects of reducing class sizes that were presented here last week on the first day of the annual meeting of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association. The March 24-28 event was expected to draw more than 15,000 education scholars from around the world.

Studies on class size have long suggested that elementary school pupils tend to learn more in classes of 20 students or fewer. The new papers, which were based on studies conducted in the United States and Hong Kong, as well as in Great Britain, extend and deepen the discussion on that topic by looking more closely at what goes on inside smaller and larger classes.

In his study of British classrooms, for instance, researcher Peter Blatchford found that both elementary and secondary students benefit from smaller classes, and that the benefits at the secondary level are particularly strong for the lowest-achieving students. That study involved 686 students in 27 primary schools and 22 secondary schools in Great Britain.

Benefits in Britain

The students were closely observed by teams of researchers who recorded their “moment to moment” behaviors in blocks of 10-second intervals. The researchers found that adding five students to a class decreased the odds of students’ being on task by nearly a quarter. In fact, the study found that low-attaining students were nearly twice as likely to be disengaged in classes of 30 students as they were in classes of 15.

“As class size increases, the amount of teaching also increases,” Mr. Blatchford, a professor of psychology and education, added. “But that’s explained by more whole-class teaching.”

Teachers are not necessarily capitalizing on the smaller settings to engage more students in collaborative projects—a finding that that some other studies have echoed. In secondary classrooms with low-achieving students, though, teachers are also spending more of their time dealing with pupils’ off-task behaviors, Mr. Blatchford said.

Contrary to some class-size studies conducted in the United States, the British researchers found no “threshold effect” in their study. In other words, classes did not have to be reduced to 15 or 20 students before the behavioral benefits started to kick in.

Reducing class size at any end of the class-size spectrum seemed to help.

Hong Kong Context

A second study presented at the conference, though, suggested that cultural differences can also play a role in the way that class-size differences affect learning.

Maurice Galton, an education professor from the University of Cambridge in Britain, has been studying the effects of an initiative to phase in reductions in primary-level class sizes over several years in Hong Kong. The schools there, as elsewhere in Asia, are noted for having larger classes than is typical in many Western nations.

In the 7,000-student Hong Kong study, the class-size reductions appeared to have no effect on the level of student engagement—mostly because students were already on task much of the time, according to Mr. Galton. He also found that teachers’ one-on-one interactions with students were just as frequent in classes of 20 to 25 students as they were in classes of 32 to 37 students.

Mr. Galton said that is because Chinese teachers typically make an effort to interact with each student, keeping track by ticking off the names on the class roster as they go along.

Teachers did spend more time talking with individual students in smaller classes, though, and their students were more likely to ask for help outside of class. Teachers in larger classes also relied more on textbooks for all of their instruction, the study found.

“We need to be able to collect data in different cultural contexts,” Mr. Galton said, “so we can tease out those things that are common and those things that are peculiar to that culture.”

U.S. Results Not Ready

The U.S. study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also attempts to focus on what goes on inside classrooms, rather than rely on measuring only outcomes, such as student achievement.

The study tracked schooling in nine Wisconsin schools taking part in that state’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program. The initiative is aimed at reducing the pupil-teacher ratio to 15-to-1 in kindergarten to 3rd grade classrooms serving economically disadvantaged students.

Those findings are not due to be released by the state education department until this summer.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Staff Shortages Affect Students, Too. Here's Where Schools Are Shutting Down
A few months into the third academic year in a row disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, at least several dozen school buildings in numerous states have had to shut down due to inadequate staffing.
1 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Several shool buildings in different parts of the country have had to shut down in recent weeks due to a lack of available bus drivers.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
School & District Management Opinion We’re Facing a Looming Crisis of Principal Burnout
Caught in the crosshairs of a pandemic and rancorous partisan battles, many principals have never been more exhausted.
David E. DeMatthews
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of burnt-out leader.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty
School & District Management What Teachers Value Most in Their Principals
For National Principals Month, we asked teachers what they love most about their principals. Here's what they had to say.
Hayley Hardison
1 min read
Illustration of job candidate and check list.
Getty
School & District Management How Staff Shortages Are Crushing Schools
Teachers are sacrificing their planning periods, students are arriving hours late, meals are out of whack, and patience is running thin.
11 min read
Stephanie LeBlanc, instructional strategist at Greeley Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine.
Stephanie LeBlanc, an instructional strategist at Greely Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine, has picked up numerous additional duties to help cover for staffing shortages at the school.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week