Do Smaller Classes Improve Learning_

Promising Practices, School Community

Do Smaller Classes Improve Learning?

Do Smaller Classes Improve Learning? (80.75 kB / pdf)

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Smaller classes are popular with parents and teachers; however, because reducing class size is a very expensive undertaking, running into hundreds of millions of dollars each year in a large province, it is important to compare this strategy with other alternatives for improving student outcomes.

Many studies have been done on the impact of class size on teaching practices and on student outcomes. Although this research inevitably contains some conflicting findings, there is a significant agreement on some major points:

  • Smaller classes in primary grades have been linked with somewhat better student outcomes, but the evidence is much weaker above the primary level.
  • Smaller classes may have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.
  • Academic gains for students from smaller classes depend on changes in teaching practices, but smaller classes alone do not necessarily lead to changed teaching. Teachers need ongoing support to implement new approaches for smaller classes.
  • Fewer children mean more space for classroom activities and may reduce behavioural management issues.
  • Changing class size across a whole system is challenging. Teachers need to change what they do, more teachers are needed, more split grade classes may result (though there is no evidence that split grades are harmful to students) and more classrooms are needed.

Evidence to date suggests that smaller classes across an entire system are probably not the most cost-effective way to improve student outcomes when compared with, for example, investing the same money in improving teaching skills. However, the fact that both teachers and parents support smaller classes provides another kind of value.

For parents, it is important to know the size of classes in your school but, even more, to understand the teaching and learning practices being used.

The primary goal of this project is to get relevant education research into the hands of the public.  These articles are produced in partnership between the Canadian Education Association and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s (OISE) Research Supporting Practice in Education (RSPE) program at the University of Toronto.

Additional Resources

  • Reducing Class Size: What do we know? Written by Dr. Nina Bascia, this report provides insights into how to maximize the positive impact of class size reduction directed at elementary schools.
  • Ontario’s Class Size Reduction initiative: Report on Early Implementation CEA commissioned a research team from the Ontario Institute on Studies in Education (OISE), headed by Dr. Nina Bascia (OISE), to undertake a study that included data analysis, site visits, interviews with educators in eight school districts, and an on-line survey completed by over 3,000 parents. Although this 140-page evaluation report focused on Ontario, it has relevance and value across the country.
  • Class Size Reduction: What the Literature Says About What Works is a literature review that includes analyses of over eighty reports and articles from a variety of Canadian and international sources, along with five in-depth descriptions of large-scale class size reduction initiatives.
  • Ontario Ministry of Education:  The Class-Size Tracker allows the public to see the primary (JK to Grade 3) class size of every school in the province of Ontario.  [Class_Size Tracker]
  • Reducing Class Size:  Promises and Perils:  This article discusses what’s good about smaller classes and why caution is needed in class size reduction.  [Available for Download]
  • Class Size Reduction:  What the Literature Suggests About What Works:  This report, published by the Canadian Education Association, looks at a variety of studies and research done on class size reduction.  [Available for Download]
  • At Issue:  What Matters About Class Size?:  At Issue, published by the Canadian Education Association, is “a series that explores current areas of debate within the educational community”.  This article looks at why reducing class size is important to the improvement of teaching and learning.  [Available for Download]
  • The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO):  The ETFO has written a research report on how class size makes a difference.  [Website]  [Available for Download]
  • BC Teachers’ Federation:  The Teacher Newsmagazine, published by BC Teachers’ Federation, looks at the supporting research in class size reduction.  [Available for Download]
  • C.D. Howe Institute:  This report argues that smaller class sizes aren’t always better.  [Available for Download]
  • Teaching Practice Resources:  This website provides a list of essential search engines for teacher and student resources.  [Website]
  • Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching:  The Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching focuses on research and curriculum development in Mathematics teaching and learning.  The website provides a variety of resources for mathematics teachers.  [Website]
  • Web Resources for Mathematics Teachers:  This link provides a list of resources, produced by Ottawa Catholic School Board, for mathematics teachers.  [Available for Download]

Research References Informing this Issue

Anh, J. and D.J. Brewer (2009). “What Do We Know About Reducing Class and School Size?”  in Sykes, G., B. Schneider, and D.N. Plank, Handbook of Education Policy Research.  American Educational Research Association, Routledge:  426-437.

Bascia, N. and E. Fredua-Kwarteng (2008).  Class Size Reduction:  What The Literature Suggests About What Works.  Canadian Education Association.

Bascia, N. and E. Fredua-Kwarteng (2008).  “Reducing Class Size:  Promises and Perils.”  Education Canada 48(4):  30-33.

  • When classes are reduced, students tend to learn more (at least by a modest amount), as measured by standardized test results, and their engagement in learning is enhanced, as demonstrated by classroom behavior, attitude, and effort; some studies suggest that students expend more academic effort and initiate more of their own learning activities in smaller classes.
  • The enthusiasm for class size reduction is an example of the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that is unfortunately common among educators, policy makers, and researchers alike.

Bascia, N. (2009). Reducing Class Size:  What Do We Know?  Canadian Education Association.

  • The research confirms that class size reduction does provide the environment in which teachers can teach differently.  In smaller classes, they interact with individual students more frequently and use a greater variety of instructional strategies.  They can create more opportunities for higher order co-construction of meaning by students.  They also may spend out-of-classroom work time on more creative planning (and less on routine marking), and they may interact more frequently with other teachers and adults in support of classroom teaching.
  • But the research also suggests that the full gains of class size reduction cannot be achieved if it is implemented without paying attention to other factors that support innovative practice.

Bohrnstedt, G.W. and B.M. Stecher (2002). What We Have Learned About Class Size Reduction in California.  CSR Research Consortium Capstone Report.  California:  California Department of Education.

Finn, J. and C.M. Achilles (1999).  “Tennessee’s Class Size Study:  Findings, Implications, Misconceptions.”  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 21(2):  97-109.

Guillemette, Y. (2005).  School Class Size:  Smaller Isn’t Better.  C.D. Howe Institute.

Milton, P. (2006).  “What Matters About Class Size?”  Education Canada 46(3):  1-2.

Stecher, B.M., G.W. Bohrnstedt, et al. (2001).  “Class-Size Reduction in California:  A Story of Hope, Promise, and Unintended Consequences.”  The Phi Delta Kappan 82(9):  670-674.

Zahorik, J.A., A. Molnar, and P. Smith (2003).  Sage Advice:  Research on Teaching in Reduce-Size Classes.  Temple, Arizona:  Education Policy Studies Laboratory.

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Ontario Institute for Studies in Education