The Impact of Class Size on Learning Outcomes in Middle School

Feb 26 2018


When it comes to choosing a school for your child, most parents have a checklist of things that a school must achieve to earn their confidence. Highly qualified teachers are bound to be one such requirement, as is access to cutting edge technology and a wide range of extracurriculars. But what about other specifics, like class size?

If class size isn’t already on your radar as a parent, it should be, because it can play a tremendous role in your child’s ability to learn and thrive in middle school and beyond, impacting everything from their academics to their social development and even their happiness.

What is considered a “good” class size?

The Center for Public Education has said that for a teacher to be as effective as possible in teaching their students, they should have no more than 18 students per class, with the sweet spot falling somewhere in the range of 13–17 students per teacher.

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Yet in 2012 (the most recent year for which federal data is available), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) showed that the average class size in the US was 21.2 students. In Philadelphia, even in well-funded school districts, classroom sizes average 20–25 students per classroom, and can reach a high of 33 students—nearly double the recommended maximum.

This is regrettable, because smaller classroom sizes and lower student-to-teacher ratios have been shown to have tremendous positive impacts on a child’s ability to learn.

Benefits of Small Classroom Size for Middle School Children

1. More Attention From Teachers

This one is obvious: When a teacher has fewer students in their classroom, they are able to give their students more individualized attention in a way that just can’t be done when they are dealing with 25 or 30 students.

And this individualized attention can go far in helping students succeed. Teachers with more manageable classroom sizes are better able to see where each child is in the learning process, allowing them to tailor the curriculum to the needs of each student. Faster learners, for example, may receive more advanced lessons or assignments that keep them engaged while the rest of the class follows the standard lesson plan.

2. Stronger Sense of Community

Smaller classroom sizes offer children the ability to truly be known by their teachers and their classmates in ways that are more difficult to achieve in larger classrooms. This strong sense of community is especially important during the middle school years, when children are vulnerable and unsure of themselves. They are pushing boundaries, rebelling, and figuring out who they want to be, and stronger classrooms allow them to do so while still feeling connected and known.

This more intimate setting also makes it easier to tackle tough topics that are specific to middle schoolers. Things like social media use, healthy living, coming of age, relationships, and world events are often better approached in a smaller classroom setting, where each student is able to express their thoughts and concerns, rather than in a larger classroom setting, where some students may not have the opportunity to voice their opinions.

3. More Experiential, Hands-on Learning

Students often learn better by doing something than by listening to a lecture, and that makes hands-on learning incredibly important. Individual and group projects, science labs, field trips, etc. are important parts of a middle school education. But when classroom sizes get too large, it can be difficult for a teacher to facilitate these activities in a way that is effective and efficient. Smaller classroom sizes make this experiential learning much more manageable, and thereby encourages teachers to incorporate more opportunities for activities into their lesson plans.

4. More Opportunities to Contribute in Class

Communication skills are some of the most important skills that today’s students need to develop in order to be successful in 21st century life. Smaller classroom sizes allow students to develop these skills by offering more opportunities to contribute to class discussions.

But beyond simply helping students build their communication skills, contributing more to classroom discussions allows students to build their confidence, grow accustomed to sharing their insights and defending their opinions, and play an active role in constructing knowledge, as opposed to simply passively learning.

5. Better, More Thoughtful Feedback

A teacher’s work doesn’t end when class is let out. A large part of it happens outside of the school day, when they are lesson planning and grading/evaluating student assignments. This is an incredibly important part of the learning process, allowing a teacher to:

  • Gain insight into how well students are learning the material
  • Reevaluate their own teaching methods to better address areas where students are struggling
  • Provide students with feedback and guidance on their assignments

Grading assignments, after all, isn’t just about handing out grades. It’s about helping children learn. If they did something wrong, they need to understand why it’s wrong or they will repeat their mistake.

But when classroom sizes get too large, giving thoughtful, valuable feedback to each and every student gets more and more difficult. There is only so much time in the day, after all.

Smaller classroom sizes, on the other hand, allow teachers to provide more thoughtful feedback to students. This is especially true of written assignments, which can take a tremendous amount of time to read and grade.

The Bottom Line

The size of your child’s classroom plays a tremendous role in what, exactly, your child is able to take away from their middle school years. Smaller student-to-teacher ratios allow for more attention from instructors, a stronger sense of community, more opportunities to contribute in class, and more individualized feedback from teachers, all of which can go far in helping your child reach their true potential.

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Topics: middle school

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