Class size surprise

March 20, 1998

JUST 20 students in a room will not necessarily make for a better learning experience than an auditorium of 250, according to a Canadian researcher.

University of Guelph professor Sid Gilbert has examined studies over the past 25 years and concludes that the way a course is organised and how a lecturer teaches is more important than class size. Although research shows small classes could help motivate and help with students' reasoning, large classes had little impact on knowledge acquisition and general academic skills.

The report, commissioned by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, acknowledges a popular preference by students and professors for small classes but says negative opinions of large classes emerge mostly in the case of inexperienced lecturers.

"What matters is not the size of the class but what goes on in the class," he concludes. "Later studies found that course organisation and management characteristics are more important than class size in producing effective learning."

Professor Gilbert says such conclusions should not provoke administrators to "pack students and instructors into the largest rooms (so as to) save some money". That would miss the point, he says. Instead, he notes a traditional indicator of a university's merit, such as class size, may be less reliable than measures such as a professor's enthusiasm and knowledge.

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