Online Learning

Research: Learning Intent Should Determine Online Class Size

online learning

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for figuring out how many students to enroll in an online course. However, according to a recently published research project, large classes — those with 40 or more students — are best for "foundational and factual knowledge acquisition," and smaller enrollments — 15 or fewer students — are better for courses intended "to develop higher order thinking, mastery of complex knowledge and student skill development."

As the researchers noted, "Pedagogical intent should dictate class size." For simplicity's sake, the definition of class size was expressed as "the number of students assigned to a single instructor," no matter how many teaching assistants or facilitators were involved.

The five-year research project was undertaken by a trio of current and retired faculty members from two different colleges of nursing at Kent State University and George Washington University. The big question they wanted to answer was how to calculate "the right balance between an institution's financial goals in online education courses (i.e., raising enrollment levels) and the quality of the education experience for online students."

The answer came by exploring 58 articles from 43 online education journals related to the top of establishing online class sizes.

As the report noted, smaller online classes were "consistently linked" to learning situations involving:

  • Engagement with challenging material;
  • Higher-order thinking;
  • Deeper levels of personal interactions, participation levels and connectedness;
  • Socially constructed understandings;
  • Individualized faculty feedback;
  • Writing and creative assignments;
  • Full access to faculty expertise; and
  • Positive student reviews of faculty.

Large-enrollment classes online tended to involve "basic levels of learning," that can "rely on lecture- and testing-centered" instructional practices that "emphasize content recall and demonstration of knowledge at the lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy," the report continued.

The researchers included a rubric that has been tested in their own institutions for establishing appropriate enrollment sizes, with the recommendation that universities use their "combined expertise of both administrative leaders and experienced faculty" to sort out the right class sizes.

The full report is openly available in the latest issue of the Online Learning Consortium's Online Learning journal.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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