Does Size (in a classroom) Matter?

Big or small - a sizable conundrum

As regular people, we are constantly faced with size choices. Big cars are more spacious – but also more difficult to find a parking space for. Big houses and apartments are good, but they also give you more work – more area to clean and keep organized. However, when you think about computers, the smaller, the better. I guess some things are better when they are big and some things are better in smaller sizes.

But what about classrooms? How many students is your “magic” number?

Of course this is not the first time I have thought about this. Considering the time I have been teaching, it would be surprising if it were. But two very extreme cases, close in time, brought the issue back to my mind. So let’s establish the context: last semester (I teach at a Binational Center / Language School, where groups are with a teacher for a semester) I had a group with 4 students, about C1 (CEF) level. And it was hell. It was the one group I did not enjoy going to class for. I never knew how many students were going to show up (being in the end of their high school they have way too many extra classes and events, they have a tendency of skipping English class), or how motivated they’d be. I actually had a student in that group who kept looking at the watch all the time :-( THAT is a killer for me! What made those class difficult was that I could hardly plan any group/pair work. The discussions took much less than I expected. But at the same time, they were speaking English – just not what I had planned on, or the topic of the lesson. And in a way, I think that influenced the way I planned those classes… I have to (shamefully???) admit I relied a lot on TTT. But I didn’t like it…  didn’t feel comfortable with it After so many years immersed in the Communicative approach,high TTT just felt wrong… but even when it gets the students talking?

On the other hand I have (this semester) a 17-student class with (mostly) 12-year-olds, about A2 level. Again, it is hell. They’re noisy, and talk all the time to each other (most study in the same school). Not all the talking is done in English..but after some “reminding”, they do. Or most of them. I have other 2 groups in the same level, but whilst in the first 2 (of around 14 students each)  I can cover the necessary content – yes, we have a coursebook based content! – in this group I have a hard time. I have to ask for their cooperation more often, I have to stop the class, get their attention (I won’t share my secret on how I get their attention and silence!) and lecture on how important it is they pay attention. I love the group – they’re fun and talkative – but they make it harder for me to cover the content.

At the same time, when I question size of groups…. I think of my private (1:1) students, and how I feel comfortable and at ease with them, how classes come from (emergent) language. So, does size matter?

That brings me to the sizable conundrum: what is the key here? Size of the class (= number of students)? The linguistic level? The age? Everything? What kind of strategies you use to cope with similar problems? Should I ignore the content if the students are communicating and producing? Should we ignore the accuracy?

I would love to get some ideas – hear your ideas and experiences :-)

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32 comments on “Does Size (in a classroom) Matter?

  1. Anna K says:

    My ideal class size for an adult language class or a children’s/adolescent’s class in the public school system is 12 students.

    I like 12 because you can group the students in many different configurations. (You can do the math, I’m not going to give you the factors of 12 :)

    However, depending on the school’s policy, having class sizes capped at 12 may be unrealistic. Where there are school board budgets, and split grade classrooms to take into account, teachers in the public school system are more likely to see class sizes in the 25-to-30-student range.

    Also, depending on the students themselves and whether they can work cohesively, large class sizes can be both a blessing and a curse. If they work well, then it a large class can be a blessing where there is a flurry of activity and learning. On the flip-side, if these students have difficulty working together and interacting with each other, then teaching that big class simply becomes crowd control.

    • Hi Anna!

      I am not sure it is a coincidence that my “perfect” number of students in a classroom is 12, like you (and Dave’s tutor, Stephen, Richard and people on Twitter) have said. Not only because, as you mentioned, it allows many different combinations, but also because if some students happen to miss the class, their absence most likely won’t affect the activities planned. Luckily, a good number of the groups I get to teach are around that number :)

      Unfortunately, as you know, it is not the reality of many teachers, especially in regular schools. I think when you have 20+ students it becomes virtually impossible to have a real sense of the students’ individual needs and abilities – at least in my context, where I only see them for 2h30m a week and I have at least 6 different groups each semester. But hey, we can’t really decide the number of students we are given, can we? We have to cope and do the best with what we are handed.

      You raised another important aspect of the whole equation, which is how the students interact.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Karl says:

        Hi Cecilla

        Totally agree with you. Top point regarding getting to the core of the learners requirements, desires and challenges is sooooo much more difficult with larger groups. Plus, when you have such a big group which in turn will mean there are a huge variety of needs, how do you go about addressing these needs and weaknesses? It is not impossible but it certainly is more challenging.

      • Hi Karl! Yes, it’s not impossible – though so much more challenging!!!!! I guess the key is identifying the ones who face a bigger challenge and start from those… Cheers! :-)

  2. DaveDodgson says:

    As someone who regularly works with classes of 30+, 4 students sounds like a dream but I can also see how it may be difficult to get the creative juices flowing and provide variety… On of my MA tutors said if he had to pick an optimum number for any learning group, it would be 12 – that allows for pair work and groups of 3, 4 or 6.

    However, some of the other points you made in the post highlight some more important issues about having a ‘good’ class. Student motivation is key – if students are missing lessons, reluctant to do tasks or ‘clock-watching’ in class, it’s difficult to get any kind of momentum going Of course, we can do things as teachers to address motivation problems but that can only go so far. At some point, the student has to pick up the reins and start to put the effort in themselves. The group dynamic is also very important. I have one class where it seems it is not ‘cool’ to behave well and so there is a group of boys who seem determined to outdo each other in terms of hell-raising and yet, in another class, spats of bad behaviour are forwned on by the rest of the class and peer pressure often elimainates most of the problems. In some classes, all the students get on really welll and this creates a positive atmosphere but in others, where the kids also get on really well, they are more interested in chatting with their friends than focusing on the task at hand…. Which brings me on to the final key thing – every class is different! What causes a problem in one class may cause no issue at all in another class; a motivational talk or activity may work wonders with one group but bomb in another…

    It’s all a matter of finding a way to connect with students on aboth a group and an individual level. That’s a hard juggling act (I have great individual relationships with most of the kids in my most difficult to motivate group, for example) and it’s one of the main reasons why we never stop learning our craft as teachers.

    Dave

    P.S. Hope to see a regular flow posts again – don’t keep us waiting for months one end please! :)

    • Hmmm… Dave, you touched on a key point, which I hadn’t really thought about when I was reflecting for this post: learner autonomy. Now I’m here thinking about whether the issue is not really how many students we have in the class. If we are capable of guiding our students into becoming autonomous learners, if we are able to make them take up the responsibility for their own learning, would the number of students in class become irrelevant? That is a very good question (which I think remains unanswered, since I haven’t heard of any teacher ever achieving that, it’s the teacher’s holy grail ;-))

      I think I need to think that over a bit. Thanks for the food for thought!

      P.S. I will be glad to oblige :-) I’ve missed this – the reflecting pre and during writing, the interaction, the learning – more than I could imagine. Cheers!

  3. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Ceci :)
    So nice to see you back!
    I guess this is altogether too facile an answer, but, the magic is not in the size … there can be magic with any size … or not … the magic is somewhere else . wish I knew where :)
    But obviously size does matter, it’s one of the key factors we have to take into account, like age, and level, and classroom space, and course aims, and personal interests and time or day, and hunger, and mood, and weather… and … and – you know how the list goes on!
    Another very clichéd thought (sorry!) but each new class brings a new challenge and the answer is almost never the same … I guess it’s part of why we stay fresh, and keen and learning no matter how long we’ve been teaching … gonna go away and mull over that a bit more!
    Ceri x

    • Hi Ceri, it’s even nicer to be back!

      Yes, you’re right… class size is only one of so many factors that influence the outcome – and success of our teaching. Classes are like our fingerprints – there are no two that are the same. Because the students are different, circumstances are different… That’s what makes each class unique, interesting – and certainly a challenge. So, of course there is no magic formula we can simply apply. But at the same time, I believe we can think of “optimal” conditions…. a certain profile that would be easier to make things work and learning take place, maybe?

      And then, again, maybe I’m being too idealistic and naive. It wouldn’t be the first time :-P

      Thanks for stopping by. Your comments always make me stop and think over things.

      Ceci x

    • I would have to agree here on the fact that the size itself is not the key issue in the dynamic of the class. I have had experiences with as few as two and as many as 24 that were equally fantastic, but it often did come down to the respect established at the beginning, the personalities of the students who worked in groups, and the content prescribed on the curriculum. Having said this, I’ve also had hellish experiences with both those numbers and everything in between as well.

      I think like most of us here have said (at least a few above anyways), I prefer to have between 12 and 15 students. Not only are groupings more varied here, but there also is enough variety in personality that different tries can eventually lead to a great group.

      In the end, 12 does sound like the best number…even if to keep a manageable limit on how many students I need to differentiate instruction and provide feedback for.

      • Perfect summary to what seems to be common sense among teachers who have commented, Ty.

        No, the size of the group is not the key issue on what makes a group good or bad – but it may have a great impact. And it seems 12 is the number that most teachers believe to be manageable to teach, group and work with, while providing individual attention and proper feedback. I also think – and I mention this because I know your context is different from mine – the “magic” number is smaller with younger learners and it’s possible to have slightly larger groups as they grow older – especially at college level.

        Whether it’s possible for schools to try to keep class size to that magic number, that is a whole different question. ;)

      • The answer to that question, Ceci, is an absolute ‘no’.

  4. The more attention your students need, the smaller the class should be. I am incredibly fortunate this semester – as a high school language arts teacher, I’ve had core classes of 32 (legal max), but currently my core classes are around 17. I also have an elective class with five students. There’s a different vibe to them, obviously. It helps that the super-small class is the elective, because I have a lot more freedom with that curriculum.

    I’ve found that above 18 students, my classes are less dynamic and I have to spend more energy watching for potential problems so that I don’t spend even MORE energy solving them. With 18 & fewer, I can spend that energy peeking at student work and spot-conferencing, and put my “management vigilante mode” on standby. ;D

    • Hi Clickety :-)

      I agree with you: large and small groups have very different vibes. And in my experience, very different dynamics as well. Maybe it’s about what Dave said, larger groups require the teacher to work more on learner autonomy. But as you mentioned, some students just need more attention, a more personalised attention. Can we do that with larger groups? It seems no is a consensus on that.

      I see that teachers develop the skills, the strategies to work with the different settings and conditions. In very large groups I have to admit I focus on students who are struggling and who have special needs (in many ways, not only the text-book definition for the term). Does that mean I am, in some way, not developing the full potential of the students who don’t fit the description, the ones who seem to be coming along fine? If so, that is definitely not fair, but it’s inevitable as well. Or should we, in such cases, dispense the same attention and treatment to all?

      I’m going to risk saying most teachers – at least the ones who read blogs and invest their time in PD and discussions like this one – would say no to that. We have a soft spot to those who need us most ;-)

      Cheers!

  5. Hi Ceci,

    Either small or large classes need lots of our effort at the moment of planning our teaching, even if you’ve worked with the same content for years, you can see one group differs from the other, one students is different from the other – either a child or a teen. Something common among them: they all like talking to each other in class – love interacting! Therefore, we, ‘poor teachers’, need more than two eyes, ears and lots of patience to ‘control’ and draw their attention.

    Currently, I work with small classess, no more than 8 students! And yes, you and the others are right: it seems to be a ‘paradise’ to have such a quantity of students. They can get better accuracy and more of your attention and help; however, the fact that interaction as a group can get its lowest as well as motivation is undeniable.

    I have had the opportunity to work with larger classes too, having the same level as well as mixed levels – from 23 to 38 students per class. Both of them have their pros and cons. However, I can say I prefer to teach large ones. It is a big challenge though. I prefer it because I can train myself even better – like going to a gym ;)… I need and get more energy. I know I have to apply all what I have learnt during my teaching time and even more, I’ll keep learning to deal with my students – to motivate them to learn and show them it can be fun! Btw, my ideal number is 25 :)

    • Hi Ana Luisa :)

      Let me start by saying you are my hero… 25 being a magic number.. wow!

      You mentioned the different age ranges – kids, teens, adults. I believe that makes a big difference as in the number of students in class we can take comfortably. The older they are, the easier it is to have more students in the same group – or is it? At the same time older students (tend to) behave better, in my experience they are also more needy of attention, especially because at lower language levels they are much more easily frustrated, and they lose motivation more easily.

      I found your observation about accuracy interesting … It does ring a bell, and I agree it closely relates to the size of the group. The more students you have in a group, the harder individual attention and monitoring becomes.

      Do larger groups tend to have lower productivity? I think so…. unless we achieve at making the students autonomous (as Dave said). Maybe THAT is the answer, after all.

      Thanks you for stopping by and sharing your magic number :) I’ve been greatly enjoying the different perspectives – and numbers. A big “yay!” for diversity!

      Cheers!

  6. Hi Ceci,

    In the past I have worked with classes of over 40. Most of my teaching career has been with classes of from 8-16 students, and recently I have been doing a lot of 1-2-1 classes and small groups.

    I have had great times and terrible times with all of the different sizes. However, the smaller the class the better their improvement. There might be individuals who buck the trend, but generally speaking, when learning a language you need to be able to use it and get feedback. No matter how good the teacher is or what strategies they employ, giving feedback is always going to be easier with smaller groups.

    My second point is that after teaching a large group I am exhausted, both physically and mentally. A semestre of teaching a number of large groups was enough to amost make me give up teaching altogether as I had no energy to do anything in the evenings or at weekends. On the other hand I could teach small groups and 1-2-1’s all day long.

    My ideal group size would be 12, for the reasons Anna K mentioned.

    Stephen Greene
    http://www.tmenglish.org

    • Hi Stephen,

      What you said resonates greatly with my feelings. Given my English teaching background (only private language schools, groups with no more than 20 students), I have allowed myself to get used to it. And like you (and many other, I’m sure) I strongly believe knowing students individual needs and giving them personalised feedback makes a big difference in the students’ progress and effective learning. And I struggle to do that in larger groups. I have to admit that anything more than 12 in a class usually means I’ll focus the extra attention on the students who appear to be more challenged, to have more difficulties with the language.

      Differently from you, though, I have a hard time with smaller (3-4) groups and establishing the dynamics for it. I’m ok with 1-1, and I enjoy those as well.

      Thanks for sharing your views and “magic” number :-)

  7. […] Does Size (in a classroom) Matter? « Box of Chocolates As regular people, we are constantly faced with size choices. Big cars are more spacious – but also more difficult to find a parking space for. Big houses and apartments are good, but they also give you more work – more area to clean and keep organized. However, when you think about computers, the smaller, the better. I guess some things are better when they are big and some things are better in smaller sizes. […]

  8. Hmm, always an interesting question! 12 (as Dave mentioned above) is definitely a nice number, but then having a few students missing can obviously change the dynamic. As for the smaller class you mention, I’ve currently got a class of three 12 year olds (elementary) and it’s a LONG hour, I can tell you. Never mind them, I’m looking at the watch – “like pulling teeth”, is my expression of choice. Then again, like you, I have larger classes of rowdy 12 and 13 year olds and while they can be frustrating they can be a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s the size that matters, it’s far more complicated than that!

    • Hi Richard… Can I just say that when I read your description of the class with 3 12-year-olds I cringed? It really sounds like a nightmare to me.

      I understand what you said about bigger classes with rowdy students being equally challenging and frustrating, I just think that rowdy students are challenging and frustrating no matter the size of the class. Being a smaller group is challenging and frustrating (most times) even with quiet, well-behaved kids.

      But yes, the equation has many variables, it’s not only about size. I just think that size matters too.

      Thanks for sharing your experience and opinion!

  9. Lindissima,

    First, I love that picture! I think that the classroom environment is the most important for me when I think about classroom size. I have learned to be a good facilitator and if I have a large class and am able to design the classroom to support differentiated instruction, then I’m ok with it. I’ve taught a class of 100 kids who were hyperactive. I don’t think that was the most ideal situation and definitely I prefer a lot less but I do know I could handle 30 to 40 effectively if I’m allowed a big enough room where I can have various learning stations and the ideal set-up for me. For me the size isn’t necessarily as important as having the freedom to set-up the room and prepare for the class size.

    • Hey lindissima :-)

      Why am I not surprised you love a picture that has dogs in it?

      I see how the physical size of the class plays an important role, especially if your MO with larger groups is setting up different learning stations (which, by the way is a great strategy for handling such groups). The size of the classroom should be adequate, of course – not too big or too small (Ceri has a wonderful post on that: “A Tale of Two Lessons” http://cerij.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/a-tale-of-two-lessons/).

      But different teaching contexts, different realities. I see my student for 1h15m, twice a week. I don’t see how I could use your strategy of different learning stations, especially if I have to cover such a long syllabus. Or maybe I just have to try it. ;-)

      P.S. It’s very weird replying to your comment while you’re sitting on my couch, about 1 meter away from me!

  10. Tara Benwell says:

    I am coming at this from a completely different perspective this week: teaching English in a chat room. We’ve been working on teaching learners how to have topic based chats on EnglishClub (like #ELTChat), and I realized how difficult it is to deal with a large group. As I tried to filter out the unrelated chatter, (thank goodness for a new “ignore” button), and the requests for private chats (like those students who constantly raise their hands), I couldn’t help but compare my experience to teaching in a large classroom. 4 chatters on the same topic would have been a dream. Instead I had 30+, and half weren’t interested. Many didn’t understand what to do. After about half an hour, I was exhausted, but I could truly see the potential in topic based chats, and tried again the next day. I’ve always been someone who worked better in small groups. I think some people (teachers and students) just function better around certain amounts of people in any kind of setting. You just feel more yourself with that perfect number. My ideal is 3. (A dream, I know.)

    PS-If you know of any advanced learners, teacher trainees who want to practise leading a group in a chat room, please send them my way!

    • Wow! See what I love about comments on a post? We get to learn about all the different contexts and settings people are teaching in.

      If giving individualised attention to a larger group is difficult, doing it in a chat is a nightmare! You should really consider limiting the number of people, and maybe having a time limit and several slots, Tara. Maybe 5 slots of 6-minute-chats with 4 people each?

      P.S. I’ll keep you in mind for advanced learners and teacher trainers!

  11. swisssirja says:

    Hi Cecilia,
    there are days when my 12 students feel like 30, and there are times when I have a class of 20 students but feel like watching a silent film…
    I guess that size on its own, detached from the multitude of elements is irrelevant. However, mix it with the rest (age, levels, time of day etc) and it can act in various ways.
    However, I do think that in my classes (and I’m struggling with mixed levels, and I mean MIXED!!!) I can only handle a certain number of students in order to be able to help and guide them. I would bet on 12 as well ;-)

  12. Hi Sirja :-)

    I so know what you’re saying! Sometimes 2 or 3 students can keep our hands fuller – and busier – and us more tired than a class of 30. The fact that there are many other – and many times more important – factors that influence how “easy” it is to teach a group. Nonetheless there also seems to be a common feeling that with your standard group, 12 is a good number as far as being able to knowing your students and being able to properly guide and do the best to help their learning process.

    Thanks for your input!!

  13. Anne says:

    Hi Cecilia,
    For me it differs between academic English and business English.
    I’ve had a class of a dedicated 24 students who come regularly, but whole class activities are really tricky with them – especially since they are culturally mixed, and it’s hard to keep those who are more talkative than the others (Latins, Africans, Arabs vs. most of the Asians) under (self-)control. So I too love about 12. For me the solution is to run a lot of group work with them.
    In my business courses, my favorite number is 6. That lets us talk through the situations they find themselves in individually and collectively in the necessary detail. I think BE includes a lot more coaching, since the learners are generally already users of ELF and need practice with and insight into their peergroups abroad. That is very hard to arrange when the group is too large.
    Hope you had a great carnival!
    Anne

    • Hi Anne,

      Thank you so much for your comment. It’s wonderful to have the perspective from different settings. In your case (for me) it’s a double bonus, because you teach students from different cultures – which I’ve never done – and you gave the BE view as well.

      I have never taught BE in a class, only 1 to 1. And you’ve raised a very important point, which is the fact that BE students need more coaching, and speaking is an ability that they need to acquire fast in most cases. Many times they also come from different areas, have different interests… it’s much more personalised, so a smaller number of students in class is essential for effectiveness.

      And thank you. I had a great time during carnival, with fantastic company :)

      Cheers,
      Cecilia

  14. Dara says:

    Hi!

    nice posts here. I agree 12 seems to be a good number. However, as some colleagues have pointed out the size is just one of the many factors that contributes to a successful lesson.

    I’d highlight motivation and learner autonomy as two key elements; and Shelly’s learning stations sounds really interesting, though this is a new term for me, where could I find information about it?

    Anyway, I sometimes have the feeling that it’s not exactly the number of students but it’s all a matter of attitude (my own attitude) and the students’ attitude, which makes effect long before the lesson starts…

    What do you do to keep a possitve attitude? What do you do to start each day thinking “I’m going to plan another great lesson”? I think knowing the answer to this will solve the size problem to a great extent.
    What do you think? Does this make any sense to you?
    Thanks for you posts Ceci. I’ve missed them a lot. You make me reflect a lot on many things.
    Thank you very much indeed.
    Dara

    • Hi Dara (and sorry for taking so long to reply, but work and life have been keeping me away from everything).

      I agree size is just one of the many factors in successful lessons (and learning). Funny enough, just yesterday I called a mother that sent a message to the school (her daughter is my student) questioning the number of students in her class, and making a point of saying she wished the school would rethink the maximum number of students in a class. I called her to reassure her, that I knew exactly who her daughter was, her individualities and progress. To let her know I am an experienced teacher who has been teaching her daughter’s level for about 5 years, teaching for almost 20, to inform her that teachers develop an ability of listening to different talks (and processing it!) with the two ears while writing on the board and still being able to correct student without looking at them, to let her know the benefits of her daughter sharing with peers, etc… But I do agree with her that 16 should be the maximum number of students in a group – more than that makes personalisation virtually impossible.

      I keep a positive attitude drawing from the students who come by after class to tell me about their success in studying or using English. I keep it from knowing I have shared something – a link, a post, an activity – that helped another teacher. I do NOT start each day thinking “I’m going to plan a great class” – I am NOT a morning person and my best lesson plans come from quick notes, keywords I write during class. I see what I feel they need – real time – and write notes to myself that I loook at when planning. I ask my students whenever possible.

      Thanks for your feedback…I wish I had more time for blogging :-(

  15. Karl says:

    Very intersting questions.

    I must say I have never really really thought about this. But now I have been prompted I would say 4. Why isn’t it 3, 6, 9 or 12. I dont like groups to work in 3s…there is often an odd one out. 5 and 7 I dont like cos it a primary number so you cant divide it equally for group work. anything over 6 for me is too big for effective monitoring of learners talking time, and for effective feedback and improvement of emerging language. Personally I prefer group teaching over 1-1s as I really enyoy the seeing the forming and building of a group, seeing the dynamics of a group flourish, feeling the positive energy and seeing the group succeed.

    However in my honest humble opinion there are so many other more important factors to consider rather than class size which are critical to learning. Such as language and material relevance, training principles and style & learner motivation. Take motivation, if you have a class of 20 or just 1, and there motivation is high. Then chances are it will be an enjoyable experience. Zero motivation then you have poor attendance, disruptive & distracted learners, learners chatting in L1 etc etc.

    Regards

    Karl

    • I agree with you that there are many other aspects to consider, Karl….adequate material and motivating first, I’d say! The material is important – because it can aid motivation – but motivation – clear, within motivation – is key, I agree. If students can’t see why they are learning , neither can we. An din this case, we can’t help :-(

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