Student Outcomes in Online Courses: Does Class Size Matter?

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session Research

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session will summarize an analysis of over 300 undergraduate online courses. Course level data were analyzed to investigate the relationship between class size and student performance (average GPAs and DFW rates). A discussion will be led about how results can be applied to class size in online education.

 

Presenters

Rebecca Arlene Thomas is currently the Postdoctoral Scholar of the Oregon State Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU). The ECRU conducts original research in online higher education, and promotes collaboration and research literacy in the field. Before working at Oregon State, Rebecca earned a master's degree in Instructional Psychology & Technology from Brigham Young University and PhD in Psychology from the University of Texas San Antonio. She enjoys conducting research about college student relationships and aggressive behavior in addition to her work in online education.

Extended Abstract

Context/Summary:

Research in higher education suggests that smaller class sizes correlate with positive outcomes for both students and instructors. In addition, national rankings for quality in higher education include online class sizes in their algorithms. However, there is limited research investigating how class size correlates with student outcomes such as grades, DFW rates, and withdrawals in online college courses. In this session, I will summarize a study of over 300 undergraduate online courses that were taught in years 2017 and 2018 at a large university in the United States.

For this study, we used course level data, including average GPAs (grade point averages) per course, as well as DFW rates. First, I will include an overview of the current literature on class size and student outcomes, followed by a description of the methodology we used for the study. Then, I will share results of the study, including student outcomes for class size ranging from 8 students to 226 students. Last, I will lead an interactive discussion about how the study results connect to the current understanding of class size in online higher education courses, and ask participants to think of ways to apply the results to practice. To do this, I will ask participants how they might use the information presented to make decisions from the perspective of different stakeholder groups, such as from the administrator perspective, or the instructor perspective. In addition to using slides during the presentation, a handout that summarizes the study results will be posted on the conference website for participant use. 

 

Research Questions:

  1. Do student outcomes (average course grades and DFW rates) differ in online courses of different sizes?
    1. When considering class size in online courses, are there differences in student outcomes for upper and lower division courses?
    2. When considering class size in online courses, do students experience different outcomes in in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) courses?

 

Methods: The analyses contained 391 undergraduate online courses that were taught in years 2017 and 2018 at a large university in the United States. All data were collected at the course level. For example, the average student GPAs (grade point average) for each course were collected using archival university data. Similarly, the DFW rate for each course (the percentage of students in the course who received the final grade of a D, F, or Withdrew), was also used as a dependent variable. The independent variable in the study was class size, or the number of students enrolled in a section of a course, taught by a single instructor.

To analyze the data, a series of one-way ANOVAs were used to test differences in GPA and DFW rates between courses of different sizes. To address Research Question 1, analyses were conducted using the full sample of courses. To address Research Question 1a, analyses were run separately for lower division courses (courses at the 100 and 200 levels) and upper division courses (courses at the 300 and 400 levels). To address Research Question 1b, analyses were run separately for STEM and non-STEM courses. Each course was defined as being STEM or non-STEM based on which college the course was offered in. For example, courses taken in the college of Engineering were labeled as STEM courses, while courses taken in the college of Liberal Arts were labeled as non-STEM courses.

Key Results: In general, we found few significant differences in student outcomes by class size. For example, DFW rates did not significantly differ based on class size. However, we did find some significant differences in regard to average student GPA. For example, students in STEM courses earned higher average GPAs in courses with 30 or fewer students (70 courses; M = 3.27) compared to courses with 31 or more students (100 courses; M = 3.09). Similarly, students in upper division courses also earned higher average GPAs in courses with 30 or fewer students (194 courses; M = 3.22) compared to courses with 31 or more students (134 courses; M = 3.10). Other results will be discussed.

Conclusions: For the online courses in this sample, slightly higher average GPAs seemed to occur in a) STEM courses, and b) upper division courses when classes had 30 or fewer students. However, DFW rates did not differ by class size.

Discussion/Interpretation: In general, results suggest student grades may be better in STEM and upper division courses if there are 30 or fewer students per online course. However, I look forward to discussing this topic further during the presentation. After presenting the results, I will lead an interactive discussion about how the study results connect to the current understanding of class size in online higher education courses, and ask participants to think of ways to apply the results to practice. To do this, I will ask participants how they might use the information presented to make decisions from the perspective of different stakeholder groups, such as from the administrator perspective, or the instructor perspective. I will also ask participants to think about other research questions they may have pertaining to class size in online courses.

 

The following are key objectives of the presentation:

After attending this session, participants will:

  1. Understand the current literature on class size and student outcomes in online higher education courses
  2. Gain awareness of how course level data can be used to investigate an educational research question
  3. Learn how online class size correlated with students’ grades and DFW rates in this study
  4. Discuss how the research on class size and student outcomes in online courses can impact practice