Size matters

March 24, 2017

The impact of class size on classroom complexity

In the summer 2015 ­edition of the ATA Magazine, University of Alberta professor José da Costa discussed a landmark 2001 study he co-authored entitled “Literacy Achievement in Small Grade 1 Classes in High-Poverty Environments.” The study reinforced subsequent national and international studies that demonstrated that class-size reductions augmented with supports for high-quality teaching make significant improvements in student learning.

The following is an excerpt of that Q&A.

Q. One of your key findings was that ­“reduction in class size produced various benefits, many of which have been previously recognized by researchers — less noise, fewer overt discipline issues, more space and hence a greater sense of autonomy, and sufficient resources. These benefits resulted in better learning, improved student interaction and positive ­social growth.” Can you tell us more?

 A. Our main finding showed that teachers with smaller class sizes had more time to devote to each child, to support and scaffold their learning more effectively. These characteristics you provide above were critical for teachers to create and focus on learning in their classrooms.

Teachers talked about changing their instructional practices as well as re-imagining learning experiences for the smaller groups of students they were teaching. They spoke of having far more time to devote to each learner to address questions and to provide formative feedback to support their learning. Many teachers shared stories of being able to identify students who performed adequately, but not to the best of their abilities. These students they then supported much more actively to “push” them to the extent of their abilities.

The teachers talked about, in very real terms, what we now commonly refer to as differentiated instruction. Without the significant reductions in class size, teachers were not able to meaningfully develop and support individual program plans. I recall one teacher who realized, with the switch to the substantially smaller class, that one student who appeared to be progressing with the class was in fact falling behind but was ­skilfully masking this by asking her classmates for help and borrowing other students’ work. This sort of falling through the cracks happens when we expect teachers to work with large numbers of students with complex learning needs.