Friday, August 8, 2014

Students' Experience of University Class Sizes

The John Henry Brookes lecture theatre at Oxford Brookes University SOURCE: Oxford Brookes website

The recent Higher Education Policy Institute/ Higher Education Academy report on student academic experience raises many issues but of particular interest to me were points made about students' experience of class sizes and student absenteeism.

Class size, student attendance and teaching contact time are usually investigated in relation to student performance. Much has been researched and written about student views on their experience of class size and how much teaching time they get and both class size and contact time are seen as proxy indicators of teaching quality. Student absenteeism in higher education has become a consistent problem for universities and their teaching staff. However, whilst it is common to hear of lecturers bemoaning lack of student attendance there little written on the views of students who do attend teaching sessions and whether there is any impact on them as a result of their missing fellow students. Instead the focus tends to be on asking students why they miss classes.

Class Size

Figure 11 below, taken from the HEPI/HEA report, shows a strong relationship between the decline in perceived academic benefits as class size increases . Basically students are positive about the benefits of class sizes between one to 15 students but then there is a:
"...striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases, especially when they reach lecture sized groups. Even medium sized seminar classes see notably fewer students receiving benefits compared with tutorial sized groups."
For tutorial/small seminar sized groups of 6-15 students 42% of students felt they gained 'a lot' educationally. This figure falls to only 20% for groups of 16-50 students.

(SOURCE: HEPI/HEA, 2014 page 24)

The main question for me here is why does the perceived benefit decrease so quickly at a relatively low class size? The majority of students' contact time is spent in classes larger than 15 students. The implication from the report seems to be that the reasons is that interaction between staff and students is more feasible in small classes but is this the whole story? From my own, admittedly small-scale, interviews with students for my doctorate research, it seems there may be other interrelated factors involved. Students, especially those coming from a private education, are used to a secondary education system involving these small interactive classes. This is what has served them well (if they have got into the university and onto the course of their choice). It is also a stark contrast to the standard university first year teaching model of very large lectures and sets of identical seminars. So students believe they learn best in small classes, whether or not they have them at university. They are also used to having a closer relationship with their teachers compared to their lecturers, who may not even know their name, especially in the first year. But in addition, students often don't know each other within larger cohorts. This means they also cannot gauge the extent to which other students are understanding what's being taught in a session. This lack of relationships in a larger class size inhibits the asking of questions and therefore reinforces the feeling of not being known. This generates a feeling of anonymity, which is again reinforced as a class size increases. Lecturers often say to students at the beginning of a lecture,
"Feel free to interrupt if you have any questions or there's anything you don't understand."
But students come to know that questions risk not only making them look bad in front of many other students but also that they risk taking the lecturer away from set of PowerPoint slides that needs to be completed within the hour and thus incurring the wrath of their fellow students. Students reported in my research interviews that they had very mixed feelings about other students asking questions in a lecture, and would not themselves ask a question in case the other students had the same views as them. Instead, students saved questions to ask in seminars, where they said they could better assess whether the understanding and feeling of other students and would not look bad in front of others.

Student Attendance

Research on student attendance at classes usually investigates the correlation is between attendance and student achievement. Attendance has been shown to decrease over the duration of a module showing significant decreases when coursework submission is due on other modules (Van Blerkom, 1992). Much less attention has been paid to the relationship between class size and attendance with the accepted view that the larger the class the higher the absenteeism because students feel more anonymous and that their lack of attendance will not be noticed. The HEPI/HEA report states that students miss less than 10% of their scheduled teaching contact time.

The main reasons given for absenteeism is that students did not find the lectures very useful and that the notes were available online. This begs the question what is the additional benefit to students of physically attending lectures? 

From my own research students did not give overly reassuring answers to this question but did mention that the lecturer would always give additional information to what was in the notes and 'may' give advice about the assignments which would otherwise be missed. However, one other key issue seemed to be the extent to which the quality of teaching environment influenced students' experience and decisions about attending. For example, students mentioned being influenced by the space, seating and temperature of a room but also whether other students attended or not. The absenteeism by other students affected those who choose to attend in both positive and negative ways:

  • a less than full attendance at a session can create an environment more conducive to a ‘good’ learning experience simply because there is more space, a better choice of seats (including the advantageous seats near the front of the class) and less distraction from students talking etc.
  • some students actively seek out seminar sessions that they know will be poorly attended. For example, those timetabled furthest away from the lecture to which they relate, in order to have a session and where they can feel more confident in asking questions and where the lecturer might get to know who they are.
  • the main negative impact of non-attendees on the learning experience of those students who do attend appears to be the impact on the creation of a community cohort.
The 'positive slant taken by students on other students' non attendance has not been explored fully as most of what is written tends to focus oh why students do not attend. In addition, a lecturer facing a depleted audience generally feels negatively about the lack of attendance and may ruminate on the impact on the learning experience and potential attainment of the non-attendees. Rarely would they conclude that those students who have attended may consider the situation to be an advantageous.

The focus is on feedback rather than class size

Finally, a last point from the HEPI/HEA report, see Figure 8 below. The surveys focusing on student experience, especially the NSS,  invariable mention feedback on assessment in terms of the time taken for marked work to come back to students or the quality or usefulness of that feedback to the students' learning. 'The feedback was poor' scored 26% in the HEPI/HEA 2014 survey, yet not too far behind it with 19% was 'The teaching groups were too large'. Perhaps there should be more of a focus on class size.

HEPI//HEA 2014 Student Academic Experience Survey published May 2014
Van Blerkom, M. L. (1992) Class attendance in undergraduate courses. The Journal of Psychology, 126 (5), 487-494.

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