When It Comes to Student Outcomes, Does Class Size Matter?
Classroom size has been a hot topic recently as schools face record-breaking enrollment numbers. As schools brace for more students and larger class sizes, there’s been much talk about how administrators and educators can best optimize their classrooms to improve student learning outcomes.
Improving educational outcomes is a nearly universal goal, but how to achieve it remains a focus of continuing research and debate. Historically, smaller class sizes were considered better—especially by educators, who can better connect with students when there are fewer to focus on.
However, where data is concerned, we must consider how the statistics are collected. Many studies base their findings on test scores, which do not account for the educator’s teaching style, class diversity, and student dynamics – all of which should be factored into the larger discussion.
Much Ado About Class Size: Does it Really Matter?
There is a long-running debate among educators that class size matters. Most teachers advocate class size reduction and smaller classroom settings as it supports stronger student-teacher connections.
From the educator’s standpoint, the argument for smaller class sizes is easy to understand. Smaller groups mean teachers have the chance to get to know their students better and may be able to identify those who need extra help or attention more quickly.
Naysayers argue that reducing class size is of limited value and diverts money away from more critical investments in other school programs, such as technology, infrastructure, educational tools, special needs, and educator enrichment.
But does class size really matter? And is it the best use of finite educational dollars? Let’s drill down on both sides of the discussion.
The Benefits of Smaller Class Sizes
- Enhanced teacher/student interaction. Smaller classrooms make it easier for teachers to establish relationships with students and earn their trust, which may lead to better outcomes.
- Improved student engagement. Smaller classrooms encourage peer relationships and increase engagement.
- More personalized learning experiences. Smaller classroom sizes enable teachers to tailor their approach to the individual.
- Flexibility in instructional strategies. A unified teaching method might not be the best approach for all students. Smaller classes allow greater flexibility when required.
The Drawbacks of Smaller Class Sizes
- Smaller classes require hiring more teachers. Hiring more teachers increases school budgets significantly. When funding is tight, schools may rely on less experienced teachers at lower pay to fill the gaps, often resulting in poorer outcomes regardless of class size.
- Additional classroom space is needed to support larger class sizes. Smaller class sizes require more classrooms, which might not be the best use of resources.
- Limited socialization and collaboration opportunities for students. Introverted or reserved students may feel excluded or disengaged in large class settings.
- Limited resources for books, technology, and other learning materials. Higher costs for additional educators remove funds from other programs, which will almost certainly impact learning outcomes.
At the end of the day, there is much data to consider and little rigorous evidence on how class size affects learning outcomes.
When It Comes to Driving Student Outcomes, Physical Space Matters
For over 200 years, classroom seating has usually been arranged row-by-column. Many experts today argue that this classroom style has resulted in inefficient use of classroom space.
Research suggests that physical spaces affect human behavior and learning in powerful ways. Seating arrangements influence how teachers interact with students and how students interact with each other.
For example, a classroom that directs student attention toward a single point of engagement, like a podium or desk at the front of the class, results in instructors spending more time in lecture-style learning and reduces active student engagement. In contrast, round-table seating, pods, or horseshoe/semicircular seating results in more productive learning activities and improved outcomes. Student discussion is encouraged, and the instructor can move about the room and interact more directly with individual students.
Despite having these insights at hand, few schools are implementing practices and approaches aimed at addressing the evolving needs of today’s learners. We continue teaching and trying to learn in this centuries-old design paradigm even though we know it’s not the ideal approach.
Designing Classroom Spaces for the 21st-Century Learner
Research-backed strategies for optimizing the learning environment include:
- Natural lighting. Natural light is proven to improve academic performance, productivity, and overall happiness.
- Configurable furniture. As discussed above, seating arrangements encourage collaboration and improve student engagement.
- Collaborative spaces. Collaboration results in better learning outcomes, improved self-esteem, and better student-educator interaction.
- Use of technology. Technology engages all kinds of students. In the case of remote learning, it’s a way to include all students in the lessons, no matter where they are learning from.
- Promote movement. Row-by-column seating inhibits freedom of movement for both teachers and students. Open and flexible layouts help to make classrooms more active/less sedentary.
- Flexibility in design/layout. Flexible classroom design allows teachers and students to work in groups or alone according to need.
Implementing Classroom Design with a Focus on Student Success
Classroom design concepts have evolved, much like most things in the modern world. Students have more distractions and deal with significantly more stress and anxiety than previous generations. The more we can do to enhance and optimize the learning environment, the stronger they will be in all their future endeavors.
Whether class sizes are small or large, the environment matters. In addition to the points described in the previous section, we must consider classroom interiors and furniture as part of the holistic design approach. Design decisions, including furnishings, should be chosen to ensure the classroom supports active learning.
Depending on what studies you read, classroom arrangement may have anywhere from 16% to 25% impact on student learning. Either metric is significant and easily addressed by an element (furniture) over which schools have complete control.
The core focus of classroom design should center around giving students ownership over how they learn. Students learn at different rates and respond better to certain lesson styles than others. Improvement may be elusive when schools focus on “what we’ve always done” rather than acknowledging this and trying to provide more flexible options.
Classroom Redesign Considerations
There are a few factors to consider before embarking on a classroom design project; class size is undoubtedly one of them.
- Available space. Ultimately, it’s counterproductive to overcrowd an already small classroom. Consider how you can maximize the space you have without being locked into a single layout. Working with a classroom design specialist like CDI can help.
- School budget. Many schools are challenged by budget restrictions and may not feel classroom redesign is a viable use of funding. However, there are many cost-to-value points to support the decision, especially as it pertains to improved learning outcomes.
- Class size. Class sizes are a big part of the equation in a redesign. The goal is to make the space as functional and ergonomic as possible for the number of students expected, both now and in the future. Flexible layouts help you accommodate whatever may come.
- Teaching methods. From accommodating remote students to hands-on projects, classrooms should be designed to support current curriculum teaching methods as well as courses, ideas, and concepts still in development.
Flexible, student-centered learning spaces alter the fundamental dynamics of teaching and learning, giving students more control, autonomy, and responsibility, improving academic engagement, and flipping an age-old design paradigm that no longer serves.
Ready to get started? Meet with a CDI design consultant today.