4 Reasons to consider class size in college decision

By Susan Pohorski

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Female instructor teaching college class
Smaller college class sizes result in higher achievement, retention and satisfaction.

What comes to mind when you think of college classes? Large lecture halls filled with students nodding off? Looking down on an instructor standing in front of a projected presentation? For many of us, this is not the most desirable way to learn. Most of us want the Cheers atmosphere—“Where everybody knows your name and you’re always glad you came.”

Not only are small classes comfortable and more personal, they can lead to higher student achievement, better oral and written communication skills, and fewer students who drop out, according to recent research on the subject.

1. Higher achievement

IDEA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving learning in higher education, found students achieved better in smaller classes. They had better opinions of the field of study, the teacher and the course.

It makes sense that in smaller classes students develop their creativity and oral and written communication skills. Who wants to raise their hand to ask a question in a room holding 100 people? With fewer students come more opportunities to participate in the conversation. And instructors in small and medium classes require more writing, oral communication, and creative/artistic design.

“Across all 10 years of data, students in small and medium classes reported a greater amount of reading and non-reading assignments in their classes than those in large and very large classes,” wrote Steve Benton in the IDEA Blog.

A study of the effects of class size on student performance at Binghamton University also found a negative effect of larger classes on student performance. The mathematical model researchers used predicts that a student in a class of 5 has a probability of receiving an A of .52. In a class of 290 students, the probability was only .22.

2. Higher retention rate

Authors of the study also found that class size affects retention, which is the probability that a student will continue in his or her college program.

“The model predicts that a student with an average class size of 20 has a .97 probability of returning to the University, whereas a student with an average class size of 240 has a probability of returning of only .80,” wrote Jack Keil and Peter J. Partell.

3. Better teaching

Smaller classes also bring more effective teaching. In another article for Inside Higher Ed, Benton and William H. Pallett wrote that half the instructors in small classes reported student enthusiasm resulting in improved learning.

According to Best Value Schools, classes that are between 1 and 19 students tend to earn the highest scores in the best ranking model. U.S. News and World Report uses the following categories to rank colleges: graduation rates, retention rates, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, performance and faculty resources (which includes class size). As we have seen, class size can also affect graduation and retention rates.

4. Your major matters

Of course the type of college program often determines the size of the classes as well. Subjects like history, literature, and psychology are usually taught with lectures and fewer small group activities or discussion sections. Courses that involve more hands-on training or laboratory work require smaller class sizes to reduce the cost of necessary equipment. So remember that your major or program often dictate your class size.

In another study at Brigham Young University researchers found class size was not significant when looking at calculus courses. However, some teachers are substantially less effective in a large class than other teachers are, and some teachers are more effective in larger classes than in smaller ones.

“At most universities, however, small classes are achieved only by hiring adjuncts, graduate students, and less-qualified faculty. In such a case, reducing class size may be doing students a disservice while simultaneously increasing instruction,” the study concluded.

As you consider various college and university choices, find out what the class sizes are and ask about the student/faculty ratios. You may also want to consider your field of study in this equation as that can affect class sizes. Does your major involve hands-on experimentation or training? Will you need to show competency with equipment?

In addition, consider your own learning style. Do you do better with more personal interaction? Will you be more motivated to learn in a large class or a small one? This factor should also influence your decision.

In summary, this means that while large universities with good reputations may be high on your postsecondary target list, they may not be your best option for academic success.

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