Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

The Other Side of the Coin: Overcoming the Detrimental Effects of Small Classes in Management Education

Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

The Other Side of the Coin: Overcoming the Detrimental Effects of Small Classes in Management Education

Article excerpt


The link between class size and student learning has been a topic of keen interest to educators, politicians, and the general public in recent years. Proponents of smaller classes have argued that learning is enhanced when fewer students are enrolled in a class. While results from empirical studies have been mixed, little attention has been given to the possibility that class sizes can be reduced to the point that effectiveness actually declines (Dommeyer, 1997; Scheck, Kiniki & Webster, 1994; Murdoch & Guy, 2002).

The presumed linear relationship between class size and effectiveness is illustrated in figure 1. In contrast, we propose an inverted-U shaped relationship, acknowledging the general tendency for effectiveness to decline when classes are too large but also proposing that effectiveness declines when classes are too small.

This paper addresses a number of practical considerations supporting the contention that classes that are too small can present as much of a problem as classes that are too large. This paper does not seek to suggest an optimal class size. Indeed, such a number would depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to field of study, level of the course, abilities and personalities of the students, and style of the instructor.

Following an overview of the literature, case studies of three classes with ten or fewer students are presented. Based on these cases, practical recommendations for overcoming problems associated with small class size are presented, followed by an outline of research opportunities.



What exactly constitutes a "small" class is widely debated. Indeed, some studies have considered a small class to have as many as thirty students (Dommeyer, 1997). In this paper, however, a "small class" refers to one with fewer than ten students. In addition, class size is defined as the ratio of students to instructors (Glass & Smith, 1980). Hence, the reference to fewer than ten students assumes that there is only one instructor in the class.

There are also different definitions of "teaching effectiveness" and "instructor effectiveness" among studies considering class size effects (Baldwin, 1993; McConnell & Sosin, 1984; Hill, 1998). In this study, we link effectiveness to learning outcomes. In other words, instructional effectiveness increases when student learning increases.

The class size-performance nexus has received considerable attention in the literature over the past half century (McConnell & Sosin, 1984; Shane, 1961, Simmons, 1959). In general, studies examining the effect of class size on performance have pitted "large" classes against those of "moderate" size. Following this stream, a number of studies have demonstrated a negative association between class size and performance (Glass & Smith, 1980). In contrast, other studies found no consequential relationship (Byus, Hampton, & Pratt, 1995; Dommeyer, 1997; Hill, 1998; Laughlin, 1976; Siegel, 1959; Williams, Cook, Quinn, & Jensen, 1985). Differences have also been found across disciplines.

Some studies have also considered the role played by instructor effectiveness in mediating and moderating the relationship. Baldwin (1993), for example, found that any negative effect associated with substantial increases in size could be more than overcome if a highly effective instructor teaches the large class.

Effectiveness aside, research suggests that smaller classes are usually preferred by both instructors and students (Guseman, 1985; McKeachie, 1978; Smith & Glass, 1979). In one study, faculty reported that classes with fewer than thirty students are less stressful, easier to control, and allow for more individualized instruction. Students report that such classes reduce distractions, create less threatening environments, and result in more personal attention from the instructor (Dommeyer, 1997). …

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