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Table of Contents
- How Should Students Be Grouped for Instruction?
- Ability Grouping
- Ability Grouped Classes
- Within-Class Ability Grouping
- Class Size - The Research
- Class Size and Academic Achievement
- Academic Achievement, Class Size and Quality of Instruction
- Non-Academic Effects of Class Size
- Alternatives to Reduction in Class Size
One of the most difficult and important decisions that school administrators have to make is how to group students for instruction. Should students be assigned to classes heterogeneously or on the basis of their ability? When there are small numbers of students in a particular grade, should multi-grade groupings be used? If so, how should these groupings be determined? What type of groupings, if any, should be used within classrooms? Should the school be departmentalized with certain teachers assigned to certain subjects (Slavin, 1988)?
As well as deciding how students should be grouped for instruction, educators must decide upon the size of instructional groups. Is the common belief that smaller classes produce more learning really true? Does class size have an effect on students' or teachers' satisfaction with their school experience?
This summary of the research literature considers these two important questions, "How should students be grouped for instruction?" and "What size should class groupings be?"
The rationale for ability grouping is that it allows schools to tailor programs to the needs of specific students. It is believed that ability grouping lets high achievers move rapidly and gives low achievers attainable goals and extra help (Slavin, 1988).
How Should Students Be Grouped for Instruction?
Three major types of grouping for instruction are considered in the sections that follow: ability grouping, and departmentalization.
Ability grouping is the practice of grouping children on the basis of their performance or their perceived ability. There are different classes or different groups within classes for students of high, average, and low ability. The rationale for ability grouping is that it allows schools to tailor programs to the needs of specific students. It is believed that ability grouping lets high achievers move rapidly and gives low achievers attainable goals and extra help (Slavin, 1988). It is sometimes argued that ability grouping boosts the self-esteem of low-achieving students because they aren't always comparing themselves to students of greater ability.
Research does not substantiate these beliefs. It shows that ability grouping has benefits only in very specific situations. Ability grouping isn't a single practice; it has many different forms that each have different effects on the intellectual and personal growth of students. The most common types of ability grouping and their consequences are discussed on pages 3 and 4.
Ability grouping has received a great deal of attention recently and has become a political issue as well as an educational issue. No discussion of ability grouping would be complete without touching on its political implications. Opponents of ability grouping say that it fails students of perceived low ability - the very students that it is designed to serve - because it provides a far richer educational experience for students placed in high-ability groups than for students placed in low-ability groups. For example, students in high-ability English classes study modern and classical literature, analyze literary genres and write original fiction, poetry and research essays. Students in low-ability classes, in contrast, write simple paragraphs, read "young adult" fiction and complete worksheets. Most of their assignments feature memorization and low-level comprehension. They have little exposure to the knowledge and skills that would allow them to move into higher classes or to be successful if they got there (Gamoran, 1992; Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Opponents of ability grouping say that this difference in curriculum has important long-term social and educational consequences. Students in low-ability groups have limited exposure to the knowledge that society values most, therefore, they are likely to be permanently locked into low educational and employment tracks because important skills and concepts were missing from their education. They lack the knowledge that will allow them to move successfully into higher educational, social and economic classes. This aspect of ability grouping is tremendously significant because it is often students of minority background that are placed in low-ability groups - in the U.S., Blacks and Hispanics; in Saskatchewan, Aboriginal students. Representatives of these groups sometimes see ability grouping as a type of institutionalized segregation and as a systemic strategy for ensuring that they remain a disadvantaged underclass (Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Ability Grouped Classes
In elementary school, students may be assigned to self-contained classrooms on the basis of achievement or perceived ability. Thus, in a particular school, there might be high-, medium- and low-achieving grade five classes. In high schools, ability-grouped class assignment usually means that students are assigned to a particular track (for example, academic, general or vocational) within which they receive most of their instruction.
Numerous studies have shown that most students in ability-grouped classes do not have higher levels of achievement than students in heterogeneous classes. However, a few (but by no means all) studies suggest that high achievers may benefit from ability grouping at the expense of low achievers (Slavin, 1988).
Several explanations have been suggested for the fact that ability grouped classes do not benefit most children. The first is the self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers have lower expectations for students in low-ability classes and communicate these expectations to students through their behaviour. Students live up to their teachers' expectations and fail to achieve. The second explanation is that the curriculum in low-ability classes may not provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to do well on various measures of achievement. The third explanation is that grouping students on the basis of a single variable such as I.Q. does not produce as much heterogeneity as might be expected. There may still be considerable variability in specific skill areas.
Students in low-ability groups have limited exposure to the knowledge that society values most, therefore, they are likely to be permanently locked into low educational and employment tracks because important skills and concepts were missing from their education (Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Numerous studies have shown that most students in ability-grouped classes do not have higher levels of achievement than students in heterogeneous classes. However, a few studies suggest that high achievers may benefit from ability grouping at the expense of low achievers (Slavin, 1988).
The limited research on regrouping between classes suggests that it promotes achievement if: (1) level and pace of instruction are adapted to students' performance level, (2) students are regrouped for only one or two subjects and remain in heterogeneous classes for most of the day.
Within-Class Ability Grouping
Within-class grouping is the practice of assigning students to subgroups on the basis of their achievement within a heterogeneous class. For example, in a typical grade four class students might be regrouped for math and language arts. In all other subject areas, they would be grouped on the basis of criteria other than achievement. The research suggests that this type of grouping promotes achievement in mathematics. However, it cannot be assumed that this is also the case for reading. Reading is fundamentally different in nature from mathematics in that there is much less need for students to work on problems independently. It is worth noting that the practice of in-class grouping for reading is nearly universal in North America, but is less common in Europe (Slavin, 1988).
In a departmentalized school, teachers teach one or a few (but not all) subjects to several different classes. Departmentalization is nearly universal at the high school level and is also found to a certain extent in some elementary schools. The main advantage of departmentalization is that it allows teachers to specialize and teach subjects that they are able and willing to teach. However, at the elementary level it may make it difficult for a student to identify with a single teacher
The little research that does exist on departmentalization suggests that this type of grouping has negative effects for elementary children. Several studies have found that elementary students in departmentalized schools show lower levels of achievement than do children in self-contained classes (Slavin, 1988).
Despite the large body of research which exists, there isn't a single, clear-cut answer to the question, "Do smaller classes result in more learning?"
What Size Should Class Groupings Be?
The issue of class size never fails to provoke discussion. Many parents feel that small classes mean better instruction and more learning and will go to considerable lengths to enrol their children in schools with small classes. Class size is a continuing issue in negotiations between teachers and school boards. Teachers argue that smaller classes facilitate individualization and allow for more student/teacher interaction. Boards of education point out the costs associated with small classes including teacher salaries, and construction and maintenance of facilities. They question whether the benefits of smaller classes are worth the cost.
Common sense suggests that smaller is better, but is this really the case? Do smaller classes result in more learning?
Class Size - The Research
In an effort to answer that question, a great deal of research has been done over the past 50 years. In addition to studies of specific situations and programs, the body of research also includes numerous reviews of the literature, and several meta-analyses in which sophisticated statistical techniques are used to integrate the data from many studies.
Several of the documents used to prepare this summary of class size research are reviews of the literature. Together they provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of research in this area.
There are studies that show that learning goes up as class size goes down, studies that show that class size matters sometimes but not always, and studies that show that it makes no difference.
There are a number of reasons for the inconsistent and even contradictory research findings concerning class size:
- The terms "large" and "small" are relative when referring to class size. Some researchers (and some school boards) consider a class of 25 large, others consider it small.
- Class size can be calculated in a variety of ways - students per class, student/teacher ratio (which includes administrative staff and consultants) and number of students taught per teacher per day (as in high schools where students move from class to class).
- Class size is a political and economic issue as well as an educational one because it enters into discussions between teachers' organizations and school boards and because it can increase or decrease the amount of taxes paid in a particular community.
Those who interpret research findings and, indeed, researchers themselves sometimes approach the issue with a particular bias. This bias cannot help but influence their conclusions.
- There are few longitudinal studies of the effects of class size. Typically, student achievement is measured in months rather than years.
- Many studies simply look at the relationship between achievement and class size and fail to consider the effect of intervening variables. One of the most important of those variables - quality of instruction - is discussed in more detail later in this summary.
- All class size studies don't look at the same things. Some consider academic achievement as measured by standardized tests; others consider achievement as measured by the teacher, students' self-concept, or teacher and student satisfaction.
Because these distinctions are important, the academic and non-academic effects of class size are discussed separately in the sections that follow.
Class Size and Academic Achievement
Perhaps the strongest statement that can be made about the relationship between class size and achievement is that reduced class size positively influences the learning of some students in some situations. In general, research findings suggest that:
- Small classes are likely to have the most academic benefit for elementary students, for students who are economically or educationally disadvantaged and for disabled students.
- Small classes produce the greatest gains in achievement in math and reading at the elementary level. At the secondary level, class size tends to have little effect in most subject areas. The exception is subjects such as music and industrial arts where the emphasis is on development of skills rather than mastery of content.
Perhaps the strongest statement that can be made about the relationship between class size and achievement is that reduced class size positively influences the learning of some students in some situations.
Most studies show that teachers' general instructional approaches and discipline methods are similar regardless of class size but that smaller classes allow teachers to implement instructional approaches more effectively.
- In order for significant benefits to result, class size must be reduced to under 20 students. Some researchers suggest that 15 is the optimum class size. Little gain in achievement occurs when class sizes are reduced from 40 to as few as 25 students.
- The optimum class size is, at least partially, dictated by the characteristics of the students. Fifteen students may be the optimum size for a regular classroom, but where the students are mentally or physically disabled or have other types of special needs, the optimum class size is much smaller (Bain & Achilles, 1986; Cahen & Filby, 1979; Class Size and Public Policy, 1988; Ellis, 1984; Is Smaller Better?, 1990; Moes, 1986; Winston, 1987; Ysseldyke, 1978).
Academic Achievement, Class Size and Quality of Instruction
Researchers who found that decreased class size lead to increased academic achievement, then set out to answer the question, "Why do smaller classes result in greater achievement?"
Most studies show that teachers' general instructional approaches and discipline methods are similar regardless of class size but that smaller classes allow teachers to implement instructional approaches more effectively. In other words, reduced class size results "only in changes in degree rather than in changes in kind" of instruction (Johnston, 1990 b).
In smaller classes:
- Each student receives more individual teacher attention - the teacher provides assistance and feedback more promptly.
- Student attention increases - students pay attention to the teacher or to their work more of the time.
- The basic curriculum does not change, but the teacher is able to cover it more effectively and there are more opportunities for enrichment.
- Discipline problems decrease.
The research points out that the positive effects of reduced class size do not occur automatically. Teachers must know how to take advantage of the opportunities for increased individualization. If a teacher teaches in exactly the same way in both large and small classes, differences in student achievement are likely to be minimal. Indeed, some writers suggest that small classes can have a negative effect on learning if the extra attention given to each student is used to reinforce ineffective learning processes. A few researchers note that teachers' preservice and inservice education rarely includes information on adapting teaching styles for different sizes of classes and suggest that this would be an appropriate topic for inservice education (Ellis, 1984; Johnston, 1990a, 1990b).
While a student’s academic achievement is certainly the major concern of the school system, subject matter knowledge is not the only outcome of schooling. A student’s experience in school can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. His self-confidence, self-discipline and creativity can grow or diminish. He can develop positive or negative attitudes toward school. The research strongly suggests that smaller classes tend to have a positive effect on all of these non-academic outcomes of schooling.
Indeed, the relationship between class size and non-academic outcomes is much more pronounced than the relationship between class size and achievement.
There are several reasons why this seems to be the case:
- Because maintaining classroom control requires less effort, teachers are more relaxed and good humoured.
- Students have more opportunities to interact with each other.
- Students receive more attention from the teacher on an individual basis and thus perceive the teacher as being more interested in her/him.
If a teacher teaches in exactly the same way in both large and small classes, differences in student achievement are likely to be minimal.
The research strongly suggests that smaller classes tend to have a positive effect on some of the non-academic outcomes of schooling.
When classes are smaller, teachers' experiences of school are more positive.
Alternatives to Reduction in Class Size
- Decrease class size only where it will have the most impact.
- Use teacher aides, volunteers, computer assisted instruction or tutors to provide one-on-one instruction.
- Redistribute students using pull-out programs, team-teaching, interest centres, etc.
- Reduce teachers' non-instructional workload.
When classes are smaller, teachers' experiences of school are more positive. Virtually every study done on this issue suggests that this is the case. Teachers say that they feel less pressured and more relaxed because they know they will be able to cover the required course material and because less energy must be put into discipline. They feel more satisfied because there are more opportunities to interact with students on a one-to-one level. They also report feeling less tired at the end of the day and thus more able to enjoy their personal life. Several writers point out that for the teacher, large classes mean more planning, more marking of assignments, more administrative paperwork, more interpersonal transactions (but fewer transactions with each student), more discipline problems and less personal time (Bain & Achilles, 1986; Cahen & Filby, 1979; Class Size and Public Policy, 1988; Ellis, 1984; Finn & Achilles, 1990; Is Smaller Better?, 1990; Moes, 1986; Winston, 1987; Ysseldyke, 1978).
Reducing class size is expensive. There are extra teachers' salaries to pay and additional facilities to maintain. Although decreased class size has academic benefits for some students, non-academic benefits for most students and personal and professional benefits for virtually all teachers, many question whether these benefits are worth the cost or whether the same benefits might be achieved more cheaply through other strategies.
Again, there are no single clear-cut answers to these questions, but the research does provide some guidelines.
First, in a school or school division it may not be appropriate to decrease the size of every class. Research shows that students with special needs benefit most from small classes. Reducing the size of school classes may not be cost effective since it will produce little additional learning.
Secondly, there may be other less expensive alternatives that will lead to comparable gains in achievement. For example, the use of teacher aides or volunteers, computer-assisted instruction, or tutors are all possibilities. The literature provides few guidelines concerning the cost-effectiveness of these various alternatives. The few studies that have been done are inconclusive.
Some report that reducing class size is a more effective way of increasing achievement than any of those other strategies, while other studies indicate that strategies such as tutoring and computer-assisted instruction are more cost effective than reductions in class size.
A third alternative strategy is redistribution of students. Students don't necessarily have to be taught all day in a traditional classroom grouping. The use of pull-out programs staffed by specialists or volunteers, team teaching, interest or activity centres, and flexible grouping are all ways of reducing class size for at least part of the day.
Finally, some of teachers' concerns about class size arise because teacher workload increases as class size goes up. Anything that administrators can do to reduce that workload would contribute to greater teacher satisfaction. For example, clerical staff could assist with preparation of materials; administrative paperwork could be reduced or additional preparation time could be provided (Chandler, 1988).
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