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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Research Link / Do Smaller Classes Change Instruction?

      Do teachers modify their instructional strategies when they are assigned to smaller classes? According to O'Connell and Smith (2000), teachers who move from larger to smaller classes make no substantial changes in their content coverage, grouping practices, or pedagogical strategies. The researchers did find, however, that teachers in smaller classes spent a little less time disciplining students and a little more time working with poor readers. Further, they found that research has not yet provided information about the most effective instructional strategies for teachers to use in small classes.
      Since 1996, many California school districts have taken advantage of additional funds provided by the state legislature to reduce class sizes in the early grades (K–3). Nevertheless, researchers found that instructional practices in grade 3 remained similar across classrooms, regardless of whether teachers were teaching in smaller classes (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2000). For example, teachers in reduced-size classes did not spend significantly more time during regular lessons working with individual students—one way in which smaller classes might promote achievement.
      Similarly, researchers found no differences in curriculum content and few differences in the frequency of teachers' use of specific instructional strategies or student activities in either language arts or mathematics. When asked about students who needed help with reading skills, however, 3rd grade teachers in reduced-size classes reported that they spent more time paying sustained attention (five or more continuous minutes) to these students than did teachers in non-reduced-size classes (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2000).
      Teachers in the smaller classes were also more likely to report that they spent less time teaching the whole class and instead were able to spend more time teaching groups of two to four students. Finally, teachers in reduced-size classes reported spending more time addressing individual students' personal concerns and less time disciplining students than did teachers in non-reduced-size classes (Stecher & Bohrnstedt, 2000).
      Finn and Achilles (1999) also found that teachers of small classes do not necessarily alter their primary teaching strategies. Instead, the researchers suggest that teachers spend less time on such classroom management tasks as keeping students on track and disciplining students. As a result, teachers can devote more time to instruction. They contend that having more time for instruction is probably a result of changes in students' behavior, including an increase in student participation in learning, especially by those students who might be unwilling to participate if they were members of a larger class.
      Betts and Shkolnik (1999) studied how variations in class size affect the amount of material covered by the teacher and how teachers reallocate their time when class size changes. They found that reduced class size induces teachers to devote less time to group instruction and more time to individual instruction. In addition, they discovered that class size variations do not lead to significant changes in the way that teachers allocate their time between new material, review, discipline, routine tasks, and testing. The researchers did find, however, that when class size was reduced, teachers did not increase the proportion of time that they spent on new material. Instead, teachers allocated more time to review activities, which did not affect the percentage of the textbook that teachers covered. “On average, and for most types of teachers, student bodies, and class abilities,” Betts and Shkolnik conclude, “teachers' reallocation of class time as class size changes appears to be quite modest” (1999, p. 209).
      By contrast, Rice (1999) found that the subject area that teachers taught influenced whether they altered their teaching strategies in reduced-size classes. For example, she found that class size played a more influential role in the way that mathematics instructors used their time than it did for science teachers. Class size affected the amount of time that mathematics teachers spent working with small groups, using innovative instructional practices, and leading whole-group discussions. Teachers in larger classes reported using all three strategies less often. Further, Rice discovered that teachers who spent more time planning were more likely to work with small groups, use innovative instructional methods, and assign less homework if they taught smaller mathematics classes. Class size does not appear to influence science teachers' instructional strategies (Rice, 1999). Rice found, however, that class size had a positive effect on the percentage of time teachers devoted to keeping order in both mathematics and science classes. In larger classes in both subjects, teachers spent a greater proportion of time on student discipline and classroom management.
      Research seems to indicate that schools and school districts considering a class size reduction program should provide teachers with the pedagogical skills, tools, and guidance that they need to make better use of the teaching and learning opportunities that reduced-size classes present.

      Betts, J. R., & Shkolnik, J. L. (1999). The behavioral effects of variations in class size: The case of math teachers. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2), 193–213.

      Finn, J., & Achilles, C. (1999). Tennessee's class size study: Findings, implications, misconceptions. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2), 97–109.

      O'Connell, J., & Smith, S. (2000). Capitalizing on small class size (ERIC Digest No. 136). Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 440 430)

      Rice, J. K. (1999). The impact of class size on instructional strategies and the use of time in high school mathematics and science courses. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2), 215–229.

      Stecher, B. M., & Borhnstedt, G. W. (Eds.). (2000). Class size reduction in California: The 1998–99 evaluation findings [Online]. Sacramento: California Department of Education. Available:www.classize.org/techreport/index-00.htm

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