Federal

Student Engagement Found to Rise as Class Size Falls

By Debra Viadero — March 25, 2008 3 min read

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 Monday on the first day of the annual meeting of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association. The March 24-28 event is expected to draw more than 15,000 education scholars from around the world before it ends on Friday.

Studies on class size have long suggested that elementary school pupils tend to learn more in classes of 20 students or fewer. The papers presented yesterday, which were based on studies conducted in the United States and Hong Kong, as well as in the United Kingdom, 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 the United Kingdom.

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 decreases 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 also 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 Results Differ

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, which, like other Asian countries, is noted for having larger classes than is typically the case in many Western nations.

In that 7,000-student study, though, the reductions appeared to have no effect on the level of student engagement—mostly because students are already on task much of the time, according to Mr. Galton. He also found that teachers’ one-to-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 individual 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.”

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 like student achievement.

The study tracks schooling in nine Wisconsin schools taking part in that state’s Student Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program, an initiative aimed at reducing the student-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, though, until this summer.

Events

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
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com
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
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
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
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education

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

Federal Miguel Cardona: Schools Must Work to Win Trust of Families of Color as They Reopen
As Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced new school reopening resources, he encouraged a focus on equity and student engagement.
4 min read
Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing Feb. 3, 2021.
Now-U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing in February.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal CDC: Nearly 80 Percent of K-12, Child-Care Workers Have Had at Least One COVID-19 Shot
About four out of five teachers, school staffers, and child-care workers had first COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of March, CDC says.
2 min read
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP
Federal Ed. Dept. to Review Title IX Rules on Sexual Assault, Gender Equity, LGBTQ Rights
The review could reopen a Trump-era debate on sexual assault in schools, and it could spark legal discord over transgender student rights.
4 min read
Symbols of gender.
iStock/Getty
Federal Q&A EdWeek Q&A: Miguel Cardona Talks Summer Learning, Mental Health, and State Tests
In an interview after a school reopening summit, the education secretary also addressed teachers' union concerns about CDC guidance.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17.
Andrew Harnik/AP