Class Size and Achievement in Higher Education: A Summary of Current Research

Article excerpt

With rapidly increasing enrollment and soaring tuition becoming major concerns of students, instructors, and administrators in many institutions of higher learning, the search to identify the most effective ways of delivering a high quality education at a reasonable cost continues. The decrease in government funding affecting many state-owned colleges and universities nationwide has often resulted in a decrease of course sections offered and an increase in the class size of the remaining available classes. The purpose of this review is to examine the current research regarding the relationship of class size to student achievement in higher education. The eight studies examined, published between 1990 and 2000, were analyzed as to methodological strength, measurement of achievement, significant findings, and resulting recommendations. The studies yielded mixed results, and upon close examination, it was found that the design methodologies were weak overall, with four of the eight studies examined defining "achievement" as simply the students' class grade alone. It is suggested that future research in this area investigate the possibility that other variables such as potential grade inflation, lower academic standards, student aptitude and readiness for college work, lack of remediation for ill-prepared and disadvantaged students, student learning styles, instructors' teaching styles, and student motivation and effort could confound research results in this area and may account for the inconsistent results.


There is a growing concern about the preparedness of college and university graduates upon entering the workforce. After the 1983 announcement that the U.S. was at risk due to poor educational performance, billions of dollars were allocated to the educational system. Despite this effort, scant results were yielded, undermining public confidence in the instructional ability of U.S. educators. However, it has been contended that there are other factors involved, with one such factor currently under examination in both the political and academic arenas being the impact of class size on student achievement in higher education. (Van Allen, 1990.)

In light of rapidly increasing enrollment in many colleges and universities across the nation, administrators are under fire concerning the issue of growing class size and the potential diminishment of academic standards. Van Allen (1990) asserts that the "quantitative product"--monetary gains afforded by increased enrollment--are outweighing the "qualitative product"--well-educated and knowledgeable college graduates. It is, therefore, of great importance that research be conducted to provide convincing evidence as to whether or not students, faculty, staff, and perhaps the nation at large may be suffering negative consequences due to the increase in class size.

In assessing the possible effect of class size on achievement, the issue of a good measure of academic achievement has been called into question. Kennedy and Siegfried (1997) state that the influence of class size on achievement depends upon the measure of achievement and that results of studies surveyed conclude that when measures of knowledge are used, the large class method is as effective as the small-class methods. However, when measures of transfer of knowledge to new situations, retention of information, problem solving, critical thinking, and attitude change or motivation are used, small-class discussion methods are favored (Kennedy & Siegfried, 1997). Taking this into consideration, it is apparent that using inappropriate or oversimplified methods of assessing achievement may lead to invalid inferences. Further, it has been suggested that the grading systems in higher education, and education in general, have been plagued by grade inflation (Gibbs, Lucas, & Simonite, 1996; Noble, 2000; Van Allen, 1990), resulting in a ceiling effect, with grades within a class being more heavily distributed in the "A" or "B" ranges than in lower ranges. …


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