Size really does matter for effective learning

1st April 2016 at 00:00
You can’t underestimate the impact of bigger classes, which put pressure on both students and teachers

I’m going to be clear and start by saying that I really like John Hattie’s Visible Learning. I like the idea of it; I like its intentions; I like that someone has evaluated classroom-based practices and ranked them, very helpfully, along a clear spectrum that seeks to highlight what works well (and, accordingly, has a large “effect size”) and what doesn’t work quite so well (which would give it a relatively low “effect size”). And so I was surprised and, I’ll admit, a bit miffed when I recently made the discovery that my enthusiasm for Hattie was not reflected by some of my peers.

Hattie’s Visible Learning was the subject that I chose for our latest professional learning group at college, and he did not go down well. The problem? Class size. More specifically, the lack of importance placed upon it in the spectrum of what makes a difference to learning. Some of my colleagues felt cheated – how could he suggest such a thing? Had he ever taught a class of 30 students? Was he trying to give licence to government leaders who might want further financial cuts, knowing this will lead to growth in the number of students seated in our classrooms every September?

This anger stopped me in my tracks. I had never considered Hattie’s work in this way, but the point that they were making seemed so obvious. It got me thinking, as everyone should in a professional learning group. Can the larger classes emerging as a result of increasing financial pressure within the sector have a detrimental impact on learning? Does class size really matter that much? I think it does. And here’s why.

In-class assessment of progress becomes more difficult

Ideally, when in class, we listen to our students’ learning discussions, we take a peek at their mind maps, we observe their group work and we tell them what they’re doing well and also point out what they could do just a bit better next time. Right? Well, yes, if you can get round them all. With increasingly large classes, this becomes increasingly difficult. With a large class comes a lack of regular, individual attention for students whose triumphs and errors simply get lost amid the sheer number of people in the room. This can’t be good for assessment, which should be regular, in-depth and the stimulus for useful verbal feedback to our students.

Behaviour management is more of a challenge

In my experience, larger classes also make it much more difficult to manage behaviour. Yes, we can seat students strategically and, yes, we can clearly lay down shared rules at the beginning of the year – every little helps, of course.

However, it would be untrue to assert that it isn’t more difficult to monitor the mobile phone usage of 25 students, rather than 12, for example. In crammed classrooms where every seat is taken and students perch precariously on the ends of tables, it can be difficult for teachers to even get near to students which clearly makes it more challenging to monitor what they are doing all of the time.

Marking work becomes increasingly unmanageable

Coming from the traditionally word-heavy subject area of English, I know all too well the pain of spending my whole evening marking only to find that my pile of A-level coursework is a mere three pieces lighter. With greater numbers of students come greater quantities of written work waiting to be marked in ever-growing piles on our desks, in our car boots, and in the increasingly heavy bags we carry to and from the staffroom.

Doing marking for small classes is timeconsuming; for large classes, it can feel like an insurmountable task. In my own teaching career I have genuinely been reduced to tears by my marking load, and that was with groups of around 20. How would it feel, being faced with the marking for a class of 30 students? I dread to think. And tired, overwhelmed teachers mean sickness and staff absence, which, in turn, impacts terribly upon students.

Many classrooms just aren’t built with these mega-groups in mind

Students jostling for elbow room, teachers with beads of sweat running down their backs, emergency chairs shuffled into increasingly cramped corners of rapidly shrinking rooms. Sound familiar? Overly-stuffed rooms can prevent students from having the space needed for creative learning activities and effective collaboration with peers, not to mention all of those unsightly bruises that their poor teachers pick up from not being able to move without bumping into table edges. Such conditions can leave students disenchanted, stressed and, sometimes, quite literally lacking in thinking space. All of these factors are limiting their learning.

Janette Thompson is a teaching and learning practitioner in an FE college in the East Midlands

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