Class Size Doesn’t Matter

I prefer one-on-one instruction or small group trainings to learning from books. This might be because I went to a very small high school with a graduating class of 13 or because I like to explore topics by asking questions. Given my background, I’ve always believed that smaller classes are more effective; more individualized interactions lead to improved learning.

recent Harvard study disproves my theory. In fact, the researchers found that none of the most commonly cited factors – class size, expenditure per pupil, teacher certification, or percentage of teachers with advanced degrees — are correlated with school effectiveness. Conventional wisdom is simply wrong.

Forty years of qualitative research at 35 charter schools suggests that five factors account for half of all differences in school effectiveness:

  • frequent teacher feedback,
  • the use of data to guide instruction,
  • high-dosage tutoring,
  • increased instructional time, and
  • high expectations.

Although the research was based on in-person schooling, I assume that similar findings would hold for Web-based instruction. High-dosage tutoring and frequent teacher feedback might be more difficult to administer via the Web but it’s possible. For example, technology exists to track which questions take longer for students to answer so that electronic courses could dynamically adjust, adding more information on these topics.

These results are also consistent with my own schooling experience. My teachers gave individualized feedback during every class, we were required to have regular tutoring in our weakest subject, and we spent two more hours per week in class than my friends in other schools.

While all of this might have been easier to accomplish due to smaller class sizes, the research shows that small classes alone are not enough.

Jonathan Becher is chief marketing officer at SAP.