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The Effect of Class Size on Academic Achievement at a Selected Institution of Higher Learning




This Study focused on The Effect of Class Size on Academic Achievement at a Selected Institution of Higher Learning. The research design for this study was largely quasi-mixed methods as it focused on survey and phenomenology. The major reason for this study was to explore whether the number of students in any given class has any bearing on their performance and resultant achievement in the mediation of Applied Communicative Skills lectures. The research was largely qualitative, with only the section on student questionnaires being quantitative. The use of research-based practices was also explored. The descriptive findings which are a triangulation of the data gathered from the various instruments of data collection used in the current study pointed towards a conclusion that class size and school factors such as teacher effectiveness can influence student achievement. The present study reflects the need to consider professional development in the area of research-based instructional practices.



1.1             Introduction

The search for the substantial achievement impact of reducing class size is one of the oldest and most frustrating concepts for educational researchers. Despite the search now approaching the end of its first century; it may rival the search for the Holy Grail in both duration and lack of results. The econometric evidence inherent in the literature examined by the researcher such as the study which was named project STAR, (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) and the other which was named SAGE, (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) referred to in greater detail below seem to point at one conclusion. There is little reason to believe that smaller class sizes systematically yield higher student achievement. While some studies point in that direction, an almost equal number of studies point almost in the opposite direction.

Students themselves tend to have divided opinions. The contending literature reports suggest that students say they get more out of a course when the class size is small yet practical experience in an enrolment survey conducted at Harvard suggests that many students are drawn to and choose large-enrollment courses and that the staggering numbers seem to be a pull factor to students. Given the seemingly tug of war in terms of available literature, the researcher felt the over-powering urge to explore the topic further and delve deeper into issues regarding the link between class size and academic achievement, if at all such a link exists.

According to Chilles, Cam, Nye, Zachariah, and Fulton (1993) random experiments like the (STAR) project have shown the benefits of smaller class sizes. The research was conducted in 79 elementary schools in Tennessee. The STAR was a four-year longitudinal class size study funded by the Tennessee general assembly and conducted by the state department of education. Over 7,000 students in 79 schools were randomly assigned into one of three interventions: small class (13 to 17 students per teacher), regular class (22 to 25 students per teacher), and regular-with-aide class (22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher’s aide). Classroom teachers were also randomly assigned to the classes they would teach. The interventions were initiated as the students entered school. The Tennessee’s STAR project and SAGE assigned children to small or regular-size classes, as well as large-scale analyses of small and large classrooms that have occurred naturally. Although researchers may quibble over the exact magnitude of gains associated with smaller classes or the means by which small classes bring about such gains, few of them such as Glass, Cahen and Smith (1982) and Slavin (1989) disagree with the basic fact that smaller classes result in higher average achievement. By reducing elementary school classes from 23 students to 15 in the STAR project, achievement, as measured by standardized exams like the Stanford achievement test increased about 7% on average. This achievement test is a common measure of student performance used in the United States of America in the elementary stages to measure basic literacy and numeracy. It was also noted that the longer students are in smaller classes, the greater their achievement level is. In the STAR report, the authors contend that smaller classes could actually widen the achievement gap between haves and have-nots if properly harnessed. The introduction serves to wet our appetite regarding the issue of class size and achievement and as we delve deeper into the topic, further problems are explored in the next section.

1.2               Statement of the problem

1.2.1            The class size debate

The coming of democracy in South Africa in 1994 ushered in a new era which came with what Luckett and Sutherland (2000) and Biggs (2003) refer to as the ‘massification’ of education and the ‘diversification’ of the classroom, especially at tertiary level. This means that universities in South Africa have over the years seen an influx in the enrolment of students from all parts of the country and the continent.

It is widely known that South Africa is currently experiencing enormous challenges in institutions of learning due to a plethora of problems. To this end, Gibbs (1992:96) has advocated for what he terms “flexibility, choice and movement around the system”, to be put in sharp focus as instability in these centres creates many societal and economic problems. It is important to try and attend to these problems from all possible angles.

A perception exists among parents and teachers that smaller classes are better than larger classes. Some researchers have technical concerns about the research designs of studies that report a link between reduced class size and improved achievement, including the project STAR study. Other studies address concerns that are based on the cost effectiveness or program design of smaller classes. But big surveys like Pascarella and Terenzini’s (1991) studies of class size and other educational factors (most of which have been conducted in K-12 schools) tend to show an inverse connection between achievement results and student preparation. In other words, the two educationists concur that class size matters a lot for students who are unprepared and come from disadvantaged backgrounds but matter little for students who bring more in the way of social capital, aptitude, and other resources to the classroom. Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) conclude that the overall evidence suggests that class size plays little or no influence on student achievement. This however has not quelled the debate. Notwithstanding the factors mentioned above, the debate still leaves the question of whether the marginal loss of learning all other students experience as a result of having one more student in class outweighs the marginal benefits that one more student receives.

Though there is debate about the extent of benefits small classes bring, or how much it costs to achieve, there is at least some agreement in the literature that using certain tests, class size does matter in some circumstances. Educationists such as Hoxby (2002) and Hanushek (1989) support this view. No such agreement exists in the literature concerning the effect of class size in higher education. Bowden and Marton (1998) have presented arguments that class size is the primary environmental variable college faculties must contend with when developing effective teaching strategies. They argue that while class size may not be significant in courses best suited for lecture style learning, courses geared toward promoting critical thinking and advanced problem solving are best taught in a smaller classroom environment. Their views are consistent with findings which suggest that students and educators’ motivation and attitude towards learning tends to be more negatively affected by larger classes. Becher (1999) agrees that though they may have learned the material, students do not feel as satisfied with the classroom experience as they would have in smaller classes, suggesting that some learning opportunities may have been lost.

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Analysts such as Slavin (1989) and Luckett (1996) have raised several fiscal and implementation issues, including questions about whether the benefits of reduced class sizes are sufficient to offset the costs incurred to create them. To this end, therefore, the topic of class size has received a lot of public and professional attention. Organisational interventions in the educational fraternity in this regard are considered to be relatively new phenomena as, before the ushering in of independence in most African states; management in these institutions has always taken on a trial and error fashion. Calls for reduction in class sizes are rallying points for parents, educators, administrators and all stakeholders are trying to find a solution so as to introduce policies aimed at tackling the high class size challenge (Nzimande, 2009).

According to the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, there is a need to triple or quadruple the student intake at universities if we are to address the skills shortage challenges in South Africa. The minister also called for the scraping of the matric examination and rather focusing on prior learning and an entrance test (Nzimande, 2009). He reiterated the need to keep the teacher–pupil ratio at what he referred to as “manageable levels”, so as not to turn institutions of higher learning into, “mere award conferring institutions” with no real learning that results in an acquisition of skills, but fosters what he terms “sterile learning” (Nzimande, 2009).

Gibbs (1992) states that the typical class size in many institutions of higher education in the twentieth century are likely to be 80 to 100, with small group work being defined as involving 16 to 20 students. Gibbs (1992) maintains that the danger of the speed of the increase in student numbers is that the system will not be able to adapt fast enough. This, he adds, could result in Higher Education Institutions (HEI`s) responding by modeling themselves on existing systems of mass higher education or by attempting to remain as they are and finding that resources are stretched beyond acceptable limits.

Herbst (2001:69) advances a number of reasons for variations in terms of optimum class sizes in different learning institutions. He believes that systems around the country differ in many respects. Important sources of variation include the examination system, existence of high-stake incentives for students and educators, provision of remedial instruction for lagging students or of enrichment classes for outstanding achievers, the level of allocation of resources, the quality of educators amongst others. He believes that these are the factors which inform class sizes in many institutions. As a result, naively assumed estimations of educational production functions may be biased by omitted variables among these characteristics of good teaching. These include the ability to communicate challenging content; involving students in hands-on experiences; providing clear and immediate feedback; and supporting family involvement and endogenity of class size with respect to student performance. In this regard, Herbst (2001:69) states that estimating the “true” class size impact, which is the causal outcome of class size on learner performance, requires an identification strategy. He maintains that this should restrict the analysis of exogenous variations in class size, being the factors other than those earlier mentioned. Several of these exogenous features involved classroom management issues such as student discipline and instilling a culture of hard work. Overall, differences were found with regard to student misbehavior, teacher misbehavior reprimands, teacher control, noise levels, student engagement, perceptions of class size and effectiveness, the use of in-depth projects and equipment as well as student assignment choice. After assessing the plethora of factors that Herbst (2001:70) believes also contribute immensely to student achievement, teacher behavior, teacher feedback and student cooperative help were seen as being more prevalent in large classes. He is of the opinion that other variables such as potential grade inflation, student aptitude, lower academic standards and a lack of remediation for ill-prepared and disadvantaged students, teaching styles and student motivation and effort could confound research results in this area and may also account for inconsistent results.

Herbst (2001:71) believes that even though there is now strong evidence that smaller class sizes improve student performance, at least in some circumstances, and using common methodologies to test the data, the debate continues. In particular, economists point out the need to weigh the costs of achieving smaller classes versus the cost of improving student achievement by other means. The investigation concludes that the strategy of class size manipulation should currently be reassessed and a new impetus for educators in HEI’s should be encouraged, to look beyond the usual methods and investigate new trends for creating effective classrooms.

1.3.       Research aims

This research stems from debates in relation to the link between class size and learning achievement. The aim of this study therefore is to investigate whether there is a connection between the number of students in a class and their resultant performance. The research looks closely at the value and benefits as well as the disadvantages of smaller class sizes and vice versa.

The researcher examines and records any variations in the progress and achievement levels of the two extremes of large and small classes. In addition examples of instances when each size has been put into use are also scrutinized. In the end some form of resolution or recommendation emerges from the findings, to which intervention strategies are then proposed. An open, reflective and critical exploration relating to the issue of whether there is an optimum class size which is ideal for effective instruction also helps shed more light and contribute to teaching practice in tertiary education in south Africa.

1.4        Research objectives

From the aims stated above, several objectives emanate, and lead the research problem to revolve around the following:

  • To explore how lecturers of larger and smaller groups mediate learning in Applied Communicative Skills (ACS).
  • To describe large and small group lecturers’ and students teaching and learning experiences.
  • To determine the extent to which the group size affects the manner in which teaching and learning is mediated in ACS.
  • To find out whether reducing the number of students in an ACS class would result in either higher or lower grades in ACS.
  • To establish whether there is some kind of mechanism which can assist in establishing what determines a large, small or even optimum class size which strikes a balance between size and achievement.

1.5        Research questions

According to Mutch (2005) research generally begins with a question to answer, a problem to explore or a situation to change. The initial question for this study states: “is there any connection between the size of the class and the learner performance and achievement in an institution of higher learning?” To keep the research process focused, the study, and especially the data-gathering process, should be informed and guided by the following questions:

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  • Is the education, which refers to the teaching, learning and resources, received in a large class the same as that received in a small class?
  • Does most of the evidence presented in the research point towards smaller or larger classes as having a greater propensity to yield better performance and achievement results?
  • Do students in larger classes participate more actively than do those in smaller classes in the mainstream classroom?
  • What are the general attitudes and preferences of students regarding class size in the mainstream classroom?
  • What prompts most learners to adopt the specific attitudes and preferences referred to above?
  • Is there significant scientific evidence to prove and convince legislators, school educators, parents and other major stake holders in the educational fraternity that class size makes a difference in student accomplishment?

These questions were designed to allow and encourage answers beyond the researcher’s own experiences and knowledge. The researcher deliberately makes the research questions open-ended with the intention of allowing for unexpected responses in order to achieve the trustworthiness of the research. Silverman (1993) reiterates that open-ended questions are the most effective method to gather an authentic understanding of what people are going through.

1.6        Motivation

The questions motivating this research can largely be divided into three sub-areas, namely:

  • How does class size affect learner performance and achievement?
  • What motivates the performance of learners other than class size?
  • What do these findings suggest about the nature of learning taking place in institutions of education in as far as class size is a factor?

By answering some of these pertinent questions the researcher discovers more about the how, why, and other implications of the unique but intricate connection between class size and learner performance and achievement. This study analyzes data to give a clearer picture of the connection between class size and student achievement.

During the course of the researcher’s teaching experiences at an institution of higher learning, the researcher came to the realization that students need a more interactive method of communication. Concerns pointing to the fact that the large and continuously increasing enrolment numbers tended to make it difficult, if not virtually impossible to provide the hands-on interaction that students undoubtedly need to sharpen their focus in this field of study were raised. This trend has been evident not only at the institution in question, but it’s currently a common trend with the majority of HEI’s in South Africa as enrolment figures continue to swell in line with the aspirations of education for all espoused by the new, post-apartheid dispensation.

It is also apparent that most students are not proficient in English at the entry point level to tertiary education. This impediment only further complicates the delicate position in which ACS educators find themselves. In terms of the teaching context, the researcher therefore felt that it was important to explore the idea of a class size which offers instruction that can best assist students to enrich their learning experience, grasp concepts well and become fully fledged members of the communities of practice that constitute the world of academia.

The main interest revolves around finding out whether smaller classes could be harnessed for academic purposes. The researcher therefore observes a number of classes in an effort to find out what happens if various group sizes are taught in Applied Communicative Skills given a semblance of similar conditions. An open, reflective, critical exploration relating to the issue of whether there is an optimum class size which is ideal for effective instruction helps shed more light and contribute to teaching practice in tertiary education in South Africa. On the one hand, it is clear that improving the status of the previously disadvantaged masses of mostly black youth can only be achieved through mass education. However on the other end of the scale stands the question of whether much is gained by mass enrolment of students at the expense of quality education. Webb (1999:115) argues that it is not only enrolment that is important, but the whole process that sees the student through to final graduation which should be put into full focus. This is a debate that will rage on for decades to come not only in South Africa but the world over where the quest to address any imbalances of the past exists.

In a report on HEI’s performance index survey conducted by the scientific and industrial research council Hlungwane (2007:49) states that, “the standards of education in institutions of higher learning in South Africa continue to deteriorate…” It is such assertions that arouse curiosity in determining whether larger classes are indeed one of the factors that erode levels of achievement.

The argument that the tuition of students must be conducted in a scenario that creates interaction and benefit is put in sharp focus. Institutions of learning should be more meaningful and provide an enriching learning experience which does not disadvantage the learners in their quest to acquire knowledge. This view is shared by among others Scauva (2002) and Heugh (1995: 208). Scauva (2002:10) maintains that “unless the practical assertion of educational rights extends to the positive interaction and change in behavior in all walks of life, the real empowerment of the majority of South Africans will remain in the realm of mere rhetoric”. Heugh (1995:331) asserts that the status quo of the dominant high-status versus low-status education impartment has not changed in South Africa. She argues that a laissez-faire approach to human rights is adopted, whereby all issues regarding a molding of the “final product” are not put into practice and accorded equal status, as is declared in educational opportunities which are enshrined in the South African Constitution.

On the other hand it is almost fool-hardy to think that equal education for all can be achieved outside the framework of the “massification of education”, given the country’s history as well as its population base. Those who have been deprived of education and academic privilege for centuries would have a different story to narrate. The lecture method is thus seen as the best suited medium for learning, instruction and assessment the world over, South Africa included. From this perspective class number is not an avenue of societal domination or a handicap to the acquisition of academic knowledge. The need to satisfy all those who may need to be educated suggests that mass lectures ought to be seen as a tool that is best capable of transmitting academic discourse in a wide range of disciplines to an even wider audience base. Honey (1997) adds that instruction and learning en masse gives students the opportunity to partake in discourses that lead them forward.

1.7        Statement of hypothesis

Anticipated findings may very well confirm the fact that the learners’ class size affects achievement and performance. Having fewer learners in the class reduces the level of distractions in the room and gives the teacher more time to devote to the needs of each individual learner.

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1.8        Research methodology

Essentially, the researcher chose a qualitative research paradigm because it is appropriate to the aims of this study, which are to investigate whether there is a link between the number of students in a class and their resultant performance. The study is of special significance to me, as I am also facing the challenges associated with larger classes and teaching in the same department as the participants in my research. I fulfill a part of the study as a participant, as well as a researcher hence it becomes easy to immerse and gain entry into the participants’ world as I already belong in it. The observations, informal conversations and interviews with the participants/colleagues, no doubt bring us closer as a unit and make us more amenable to sharing our experiences, difficulties and challenges as well as little joys and successes.

A more collaborative climate prevails with all of us understanding and sharing our unique contexts as ACS lecturers. To determine the efficacy of the effect of class size on influencing achievement, two distinct group sizes are observed, a big group and a smaller group under the same conditions and comparisons in the pedagogical challenges and benefits are made.

Qualitative researchers use data collection techniques such as observation and unstructured interviews. These techniques are particularly pertinent to this study, as they enable the researcher to interpret the participants’ verbal responses and their style of mediation and interaction in the classroom. The quantitative design for this study would not enable one to uncover the rich information unraveled with the use of the qualitative paradigm. Henning, (2004:102) asserts that, “the human factor” in social research is brought in by being able to communicate with the participants. He believes that, “by studying the participants’ words, it is possible to gain deeper insights and understanding of their emotions and experiences: qualitative research places emphasis on understanding, through looking closely at people’s words, actions and records” (Henning 2004:102). To this end, interviews are conducted with lecturers and the responses they give provide useful data which is interpreted and subsequently depicted in various graphic ways. The study would otherwise not have been able to uncover the rich information which is desired if the quantitative paradigm were used instead.

1.9        Clarification of key concepts

1.9.1     Performance

The South African Department of Education (DoE, 2002:179) in its educational report defines performance as being based on direct observation of a student’s work (a writing sample) or a process, (say an oral presentation). According to the report, the quality of the performance is judged on the basis of clearly specified criteria that define what the given performance looks like at the beginning, developing, and proficiency levels. Sound performance assessment is characterized by clear targets; a well-defined sense of purpose (how will we use results?); sound, thoroughly tested criteria that are known to everyone (including students); and quality tasks that are engaging and challenging. The department further states that teachers could classify students

into four broad performance categories, namely, distinguished, proficient, apprentice and novice. These are semantically replaced by: “exceeds expectations”, “meets expectations”, “approaches expectations”, and “struggles to meet expectations”.

1.9.2    Achievement

According to Black and William (1998:219) achievement is past oriented. It is based on a specific body of knowledge and it reveals areas of weakness, which can result in remedial action. Achievement can also reveal competence and such results can be used to predict future performance.    Towards a detailed definition of student achievement

Trawler and Knight (2002:317) propose four approaches of defining student achievement:

  • The level of student attainment, defined in terms of test score averages or percentages of students at proficiency levels;
  • Cross-cohort change in the level of attainment;
  • Change in the level of attainment, comparing the same group or cohort of students over time; and Value models that try to isolate the school or teacher contribution statistically and that control for factors like poverty and ethnic heritage.
  • Defining student achievement by level of attainment

According to Trawler and Knight (2002:317) this is defining student performance as the average level of student attainment. However, test scores are highly influenced by student socio-economic characteristics, such as family income, that are outside educators’ control, nor does it take into account the level of knowledge students bring with them to the classroom.

  • Defining student achievement by cross-cohort change in attainment

Trawler and Knight (2002:317) state that defining learner performance in terms of cross-cohort change in attainment is the basic approach used in educational settings. Performance is measured by comparing test scores for the same subject and grade level across yearly cohorts of students.

(c) Defining student achievement as average change in attainment

Black and William (1998) state that this refers to defining learner performance as the average change in attainment across years for the same group of students. This method requires tests that can measure the progression of student learning from year to year, and data systems that track individual students across grades.

(d) Defining student achievement using value-added methods

Black and William (1998) and Trawler and Knight (2002:317) concur that the value-added approach attempts to isolate the contribution of the teacher or school to student achievement by controlling for student, classroom, or school characteristics that influence learning but are not under teachers’ or schools’ control.

In summary, performance is defined as the accomplishment of a task in accordance with a set standard of completeness and accuracy while achievement is defined as a measurement of what a person can do after training. Achievement and performance are strongly linked to behavioral results. In this research therefore, the two concepts are used interchangeably.

1.9.3    Formative assessment

Black and William (1998) define assessment broadly to include all activities that teachers and students undertake to get information that can be used diagnostically to alter teaching and learning. Under this definition assessment encompasses teacher observation, classroom discussion, and analysis of student work, including homework and tests. Assessment becomes formative when information is used to adapt teaching and learning to conform to the needs of the students.

1.9.4    Group

Cahen et al (1983:164) define a group as, “a subset or unit of individuals with highly interdependent tasks to be completed in limited periods of time. In the context of this study, group also refers to “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a common and valued goal/objective/mission, and who have each been assigned specific roles or functions to perform, and who have a limited life-span of membership” (Heugh, 1995:178).

1.9.5     Higher education institutions (HEI`s)

Black and William (1998) define HEI`s broadly as universities, technikons, colleges and poly-technical institutions which offer tuition to post matric students for further academic learning.

1.9.6     Mainstream classroom

The South African Department of Education (DoE, 2001) defines a mainstream classroom as a regular classroom where all students are catered for and taught the usual curriculum by teachers with regular teaching qualifications.

Pages:  150

Category: Project

Format:  Word & PDF        

Chapters: 1-5

Material contains Table of Content, Abstract and References.

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