College & Workforce Readiness

Boosting Motivation with Smaller Classes

By Katie Ash — January 03, 2008 1 min read
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I read a story yesterday in The (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer about a new middle school program that selects a handful of overage eighth-grade students and puts them into accelerated classes aimed to get them back on track with their high school peers. Since the program targets students who are behind, I was interested to see how the program motivated typically under-performing students to work twice as hard as the average student to catch up.

The article didn’t go into the program’s methodology in great detail, but one of the students cites smaller class sizes as a reason for his success in the program. Being in a classroom with kids his own age where he is given individualized attention has helped him maintain high grades, he says.

I tend to agree with him, as I’d venture most people would. In high school, I was in the International Baccalaureate program. As a result, my classes generally did not exceed 20 people. Most of the time, the average class size hovered around 10 or 12 kids. In that kind of environment, open discussion was manageable and encouraged, and my teachers knew whether or not each individual student understood the material. I always strove to be well-prepared for classes where I knew I would be expected to participate in class discussions, and it was much easier to be engaged in lessons that depended on each student’s input.

Smaller class sizes also came up in our recent post about differing grading scales. As one teacher commented, having a thorough, individualized evaluation method is a much better way of keeping parents, students, and teachers informed about each student’s progress than grades, but unfortunately, when each teacher has 150 students a year, there simply isn’t enough time to track each student in that much depth.

How much of student motivation is tied up in each kid receiving individual attention? Should smaller class sizes be given greater priority in school systems? How might teachers juggle providing individualized attention to their students with all their other classroom tasks, especially in large classes?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.