Keeping it small: why class size matters
Ashley Abbate had her pick of colleges, but one of the reasons she chose Augsburg College was for the college's small classes. "There were about 25 students in my high school classes and I wanted something even smaller," she said. Her desire to know her teachers and have ample opportunities to speak in class discussions made Augsburg — with an average undergraduate class size of 15 students — a good choice for her.
In K-12 discussions of students' learning environments, it's common to hear the term "student-teacher ratio." The ratio is determined by dividing the total number of teaching professionals (including art, music and physical education teachers) into the total student enrollment in a school or district. Although student-teacher ratio is often used interchangeably with class size, class size actually represents the number of students who regularly attend a teacher's classroom. The assumption is often made by the general public that lower student-teacher ratios and lower class sizes provide better academic environments for teachers and students.
One of the most well-known studies to determine whether student achievement would increase with smaller class sizes was conducted in 1990 by the state of Tennessee. Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) provided evidence that smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third graders resulted in significant academic gains, especially for minority students. A number of other studies have investigated the relationship between small class size and student learning, sparking a debate in the education and research communities. While Project STAR continues to stand as an important piece of research, some argue that there are other factors associated with academic achievement, and simply reducing the class size for children in early elementary grades without considering these other factors will be very expensive and may not lead to increased academic achievement.
An issue in college too
Should there be the same level of interest and concern in student-faculty ratios at the postsecondary level? Does matter if an 18-year-old college freshman is in an introductory college course with hundreds of other students — or a seminar with a dozen?
The National Survey of Student Engagement, designed to query undergraduates about their educational experiences, has identified student-faculty interaction as an important predictor of success in college. Specifically, a student's ability to discuss class assignments and career plans with instructors, receive prompt feedback, and have an opportunity to work on a research project with faculty can directly impact the overall educational experience.
Another indicator that it is important — at least to consumers — comes from a review of college ranking systems. For example, U.S. News and World Report ranks colleges and universities based on several measures of quality, including student-faculty ratio and class size. A lower student-faculty ratio and lower class size score a higher quality rating.
The value of small undergraduate classes to our alums also was investigated by the Minnesota Private College Research Foundation. Findings from "Comparing Results 2004: Alumni Perspectives on College" highlight the importance of small class size, with 90% of graduates indicating that they benefited from small classes.
Minnesota's Private Colleges are committed to offering students access to faculty and a small group setting in which to learn. Our institutions average a student-faculty ratio of 13 to 1; most classes have fewer than 20 students.
Clearly student-faculty ratios matter to students like Abbate. "It's easier for me to learn from others in my class and for me to help others learn in small group settings with our professors. It's like having a community in our classroom."