Class size has been a topic of conversation across a variety of educational environments. Educators have wanted to know how many students should be assigned to a single instructor in a course, and how class size can impact pedagogy and student success. In general, “smaller” class sizes have been seen as ideal, with higher education classes becoming progressively smaller as course content becomes more advanced, and college ranking systems assign more value to smaller courses (i.e. 30 or fewer students; Monks & Schmidt, 2011). However, larger courses can be seen as more resource efficient, as they require institutions to hire fewer faculty, and allow more students to learn at the same time.
Online higher education specifically sits in a unique position when it comes to class size, especially considering that the majority of the discussion about class size has focused on face-to-face environments. For example, online classes are not limited to the number of seats available in a physical space. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) leverage this potential, as they efficiently offer course content to many students at no or low cost. However, MOOCs have a different purpose than online courses within institutional degree programs, and online courses require “regular and substantive interaction” in order to qualify for financial aid. In this context, what factors should be considered when making decisions about class size in online courses?
The following are important considerations related to class sizes in online courses that are part of higher education degree programs. This content is a result of a research study conducted by the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit, where I currently work as a Postdoctoral Scholar. We have published this study as an academic article in the inaugural issue of the Northwest eLearning Journal, and presented at the 2021 OLC Innovate conference. While I encourage you to reference the manuscript and presentation to learn more specifically about our research, the following are key take-aways that my team has gained from our analyses, the literature review, and conversations we have had with diverse stakeholder groups related to online class size.
The concept of what constitutes a “small” or “large” class is relative to professionals’ context and experience. There is a lack of consensus by what is meant by “small” and “large” classes, in both research and practice. For example, some online faculty in Lowenthal et al.’s (2019) study (40%) considered a class of 30 or more students to be “high enrollment”, while others considered much larger classes to be “high enrollment.” This may be due to differences in average class size by institution or field.
Therefore, future research and conversation about class size should address specific course sizes. While 30 students tends to be a common mid-point across the current literature in online higher education (e.g. Taft et al., 2019), professionals may need to ask different questions, and have different conversations, depending on their context. For example, fewer research studies in online higher education have focused on courses with over 50 students, even though some might consider classes with <50 students to be “small.”
While there is no “one size fits all” approach to ideal class size (Taft et al., 2019), there is theory to suggest that certain class sizes may be optimal for certain pedagogies and course designs. Theoretically, “smaller” courses (often defined as <30 students) better allow instructors to:
Use hands-on pedagogies that are in line with a constructivist theory of learning. For example, in lab activities, the instructor’s job is to facilitate and provide feedback for students. If a class becomes too large, an instructor cannot provide as much individualized attention.
Teach learning objectives higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy. While “larger” classes work well for teaching and assessing learning objectives such as “remembering” and “understanding,” learning objectives higher on Bloom’s Taxomony often require more time-consuming pedagogies for both the student and instructor (i.e. writing assignments). (Bloom et al., 1956)
Facilitate teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence. Larger courses can present more challenges for instructors when trying to utilize the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison et al., 2000).
Since “smaller” classes (generally 30 students or fewer) make it easier to engage in certain pedagogies, class size should be driven by the course learning objectives. For a guide on how to align class size with a pedagogical approach I recommend Taft et al.’s (2019) literature review about online class size, which includes an Implementation Rubric for Experimentation With Class Size Decisions.
Smaller courses allow instructors to interact more with their students, and make responsibilities like grading less time consuming (Lowenthal et al., 2019). In addition to the pedagogical benefits of instructor feedback, student-instructor interaction can provide other benefits, such as increasing students’ motivation to persist (e.g. Dykman & Davis, 2008), and possibly enhance other factors such as student belongingness, as well as provide networking opportunities.
Smaller classes may help some students earn higher grades in certain courses, such as in STEM and upper division undergraduate courses. In our study of 391 online undergraduate courses at Oregon State University, we found that students in STEM courses and upper division courses (300-400 level) earned significantly higher final grades in courses with 8-30 students compared to 31+ students. We did not find a significant difference in grades by class size for non-STEM courses or lower division (100-200) courses.
While we did not test this association directly, we hypothesize that students earned higher grades in the smaller STEM and upper division courses due to the differences in pedagogies outlined above. This further suggests that learning objectives and pedagogies should guide class size decisions, as it may be impactful for some, but not all, courses to have fewer than 30 students.
Class size is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating an environment where students and faculty can succeed. Since class size tends to align with certain pedagogies and course designs, class size can impact how instructors teach, and by extension, students’ classroom experiences. However, there are many other factors to consider in combination with class size! For example, smaller classes may make it easier for instructors to interact with and provide feedback to their students, but faculty need to have other conditions in place in order to do their best work.
Research related to faculty responsibilities and burn-out, as well as effective teaching practices, are needed. Similarly, research related to educational equity is important, as research about face-to-face class size has suggested that underrepresented students may be less likely to experience the benefits of smaller classes, possibly due to a lack of mentoring or support system (Ake-Little et al., 2020). Class size decisions are one important component when it comes to striving for online learning efficacy and student success.
Ake-Little, E., von der Embse, N., & Dawson, D. (2020). Does class size matter in the university setting? Educational Researcher, 49(8), 595-605. doi: 10.3102/0013189X20933836
Bloom, B. S., Englehart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). The Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook I: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.
Dykman, C. A., & Davis, C. K. (2008). Online education forum, part three. A quality online educational experience. Journal of Information Systems Education, 19(3), 281-289.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2–3), (2000), pp. 87-105
Lowenthal, P. R., Nyland, R., Jung, E., Dunlap, J. C., & Kepka, J. (2019). Does class size matter? An exploration into faculty perceptions of teaching high-enrollment online courses. American Journal of Distance Education, 33(3), 152-168.
Monks, J., & Schmidt, R. M. (2011). The impact of class size on outcomes in higher education. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 11(1), 1-17.
Taft, S. H., Kesten, K., & El-Banna, M. M. (2019). One size does not fit all: Toward an evidence based framework for determining online course enrollment sizes in higher education. Online Learning, 23(3), 188-233. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i3.1534
Rebecca A. Thomas, Ph.D., is currently the Postdoctoral Scholar for the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU). The ECRU responds to and forecasts the needs and challenges of the online education field through conducting original research; fostering strategic collaborations; and creating evidence-based resources and tools that contribute to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The ECRU is part of Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s top-ranked online education provider. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.