Does Class Size Matter?

We’ve all heard the commonplace that as far as class size goes, bigger is not better.

In smaller classes, students benefit from more individual attention from the teacher. The teacher isn’t all strung out trying to keep tabs on students. Parents get to think that their kids will have better test scores and a sense of community. The school board feels more cost-effective because it gets higher graduation rates. Win-win-win-win.

But don’t just buy all those wins without looking at the way the game is played. Some studies have made the case that class size matters more in some situations than others: in particular, kids are understood to need more attention in early grades, and traditionally disadvantaged groups have also been shown to benefit from added attention (with English-language acquisition, for example).

So what is a normal class size, then?

The general vibe is that 22:1 for grades K-3 is too big, and over 30 is a stretch for fourth grade onward.

So we’re saying 21 six-year-olds is a piece of cake? Um, no. Groups of 14-16 are generally more effective: not so big that the teacher has his or hands totally overflowing, but big enough for there to be plenty of opportunities for group activities, playing and learning in teams or pairs, and chances for students to learn from each other.

So “the smaller the better” also ain’t the case.

Why is it important to get the right number in a class? Like we said, all that stuff about teachers getting to pay more attention to students and test scores on the up and up. But there’s more.

One Tennessee study shows that class-size reduction works because students change their behavior: students in a smaller class are less able to hide in the back or make faces when the teacher isn’t looking. Plus, potential troublemakers benefit by working more closely with classmates. There are those win-wins again.

Still, it’s not as simple as shrinking the ratio. While most sources will tell you that smaller class sizes are generally more effective, it’s worth noting that even if you’re lucky enough to get a smaller class year in and year out, if the quality of teaching or school leadership is lacking, it’s not going to do you much good (source).

Not to mention all those other factors like school resources, parent involvement, size of the school, etc. The biggest factor is smaller classroom sizes require more teachers and hiring more teachers requires more money.

Plus, reducing class sizes only really makes a difference only if teachers have the training and administrative support to match their methods of teaching and interacting with both students and parents to the size of the class, and the real-live students themselves ( source).

During COVID-19 a lot of schools got to experience smaller class sizes due to hybrid models or students electing to do their education from home. For some teachers, it was hard to see the benefit of smaller classes because they still had the stress of juggling students online as well. Others were stressed about keeping their classroom sanitary and safe. Judging smaller classrooms from the 2020-2021 school year may not be the best option.

So don’t take a ratio at face value. First, do your research and figure out what you’ve got to count on.

Regardless of the size, Shmoop has resources for any classroom. Check out our subscription plans!