Sunday, February 26, 2012

Another Class Size Rant

The other day I took a subbing job for math in a middle school. I taught 6 classes that day: 4 classes of 7th graders and 2 classes of 8th graders. The lesson for the 7th graders was particularly interesting. It consisted of two rather complicated word problems that the students had to figure out. But even more interesting than the actual assignment was the difference that class size made. 3 of the classes were normal size and one was exceptionally small, approximately 25 to 28 students vs. 9. I have no idea why this was so. The students didn't actually seem much different individually from the students in the other classes - that is, they didn't seem to have any special characteristics that were notable. They weren't exceptionally brilliant; they didn't seem to have any disabilities. Perhaps it was just a fluke of scheduling.

At any rate, I can't complain about the classes (well, maybe the 8th graders, but everyone complains about 8th graders). They all worked well on the assignment. The difference was the tenor of the classes. The small class just seemed to be much more personal. How much more fun it would be to always have classes of 9 to 15 students! Too bad it can't always be so.


  1. Haha - I thought "9" was a misprint - and that "25 to 28" was the size of your small classes.

    I started this year with a class of 38, though 1 didn't show. Through various maneuvering - mostly involving shedding the most capable students (sigh!) and some who moved out of town - I got down to 30, capacity for my classroom in terms of seats. But even now, there is no room for being flexible, moving kids who need space, etc.

    Not to mention that - as I've figured it over my career, 24 students seems to be the maximum size for me being able to track everyone. With every student above that it gets geometrically more difficult.

  2. I have found that right around 24-25 students, the tenor and management of the class changes. Above that, and it is impossible to accommodate individual differences more than just fleetingly. Below that, and it is possible to, as you said, keep track of each student.

    For 5 years, I taught an algebra class to 8th graders who were ready for it. Since this was an extremely small school (216 some students in a K-8 school), my class was usually between 4 and 8 students in size. I loved teaching those classes. What a joy to be able to respond to them, in terms of pacing, re-teaching, and work load.

    A long time ago, I read of some meta-research that studied the differences that class size meant. I can't recall the research well, but some of what they said indicated that there were certain cut-off points where the dynamic of the classes changed. For instance, below 5 students, there wasn't enough variety in the class for students to find compatible working partners; around 12-18 students was better for partner interactions and optimal for teacher-student interaction and flexibility. Above 24-25, there was much less individualization and teaching became more of a group exercise, with more rigid expectations and interactions.