This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
I’ve been the director of online education at my institution since 2007. One question I’ve been asked many times over the years is “What is the optimal number of students to have in an online class?” My usual response is to pretend I haven’t heard and walk away as quickly as possible.
Well, that’s not totally true. But as you can imagine, this is not an easy question to answer, as there are many variables that come into play–the topic of the class, the overall course design, the academic rank of students in the class, the experience of the instructor teaching the class, etc.
I’ve had many interesting discussions with students, staff and administrators over the years about enrollments in online courses. When I first started teaching online, my courses would fill almost immediately, sometimes within minutes. Inevitably, students would contact me and request an override for the course — not just one or two students, but dozens upon dozens of students. They were usually surprised when I said no. These frustrated students would often reply with a comment such as, “But it’s an online class, so you can take unlimited numbers of students and it won’t be any additional work for you.”
Surprisingly, I’ve heard this kind of comment from some faculty, staff and administrators as well. I usually view these interactions as opportunities to offer a bit of education about online learning. So I might say, for example, that if I had seven graded assignments in my online course, and 25 students, I would end up grading 175 assignments–with the emphasis on “I.”
However, if I doubled the number of students in my class and graded seven assignments for 50 students, that would be 350 assignments to grade. There were also 22 quizzes, two exams and multiple discussion forum posts that needed to be monitored and graded in the course. “Oh, I get it,” the students would respond. “So, you’re gonna let me in?”
Proponents of smaller classes often assert that when instructors are teaching fewer students, it allows those instructors to give more attention to, and have more interaction with, each student. This enhanced interaction can lead to more and higher-quality feedback from instructors, to better fostering of critical thinking skills in students, and to an overall stronger relationship between student and instructor. It has been documented that instructors who teach very large courses often rely more on lecturing and use fewer interactive teaching strategies, such as having students work in collaborative groups. Many of the collegiate ranking systems we are so familiar with (e.g., U.S. News and World Report) use class size in their evaluation criteria, with smaller class size being viewed more favorably.
The impact of class size and academic achievement has been studied extensively in K-12. The National Education Policy Center states it is clear that large class size has a negative impact on student outcomes, and that is especially true for earlier grade levels and for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the evidence for higher education is less conclusive.
One recent study conducted in higher education that received a fair amount of attention claimed that increasing class size in online courses didn’t impact student outcomes. However, this study was done with relatively small courses (15–40 students) and the “larger” sections of courses in this particular study had an average of only three additional students per section. I’ve been able to locate a number of additional studies attempting to determine the “optimal class size” for online courses, and suggestions from researchers range from 10–15 students on the low end to 25–30 students on the high end, with enrollments from 16–24 students falling in the mid-range.
In thefreedictionary.com, “optimal” is defined as “most favorable or desirable.” In a perfect world, I think faculty and administrators would agree that keeping course enrollments low does have a positive impact on learning and would be considered optimal. However, deciding on enrollment caps for courses is complex and has a variety of resource and budgetary implications. As a faculty member, I’ve been in conversations with department chairs and deans who have asked that I accept more students in my courses, both online and face-to-face. Those are hard conversations to have.
What constitutes a small or large class? I haven’t found any universally accepted way to categorize the size of courses. However, I did find suggestions from the non-profit organization IDEA, whose mission is to improve learning in higher education through research, assessment and professional development. According to IDEA, a small course is 10–14 students, a medium course is 15–34 students, a larger course is 35–49 students, and a very large course is 50 or more students.
There’s another factor involved as well. At some institutions, faculty compensation is directly related to the number of students in a class, which can be especially true for intersessions (e.g., summer and winter sessions). At these institutions there is a financial incentive to teach greater numbers of students.
Some colleges and universities allow a smaller enrollment the first time a course is offered, which may give instructors a chance to offer their course with a smaller number of students and get the bugs worked out, and figure out what needs to be tweaked or changed. Interestingly, class size does tend to impact student course evaluations, with students consistently ranking larger more negatively.
So let’s get back to the question I raised in the first paragraph: “What is the optimal number of students to have in an online class?” Well, as stated in the section on enrollment in the online education handbook at my institution: “It is recommended that enrollments in online courses should not exceed 25 students due to the active and collaborative nature of quality online course design. Increasing course enrollments likely will impact the student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction, along with the instructor workload.” Most institutions recommend a similar cap of 20–25 students. Additionally, at my institution we have a policy in which enrollments in online courses should not exceed the enrollment in the same face-to-face course.
I’ll end by saying that it is certainly possible to have a course enrollment of 15 students with limited interaction and engagement, just as it is possible to have a course enrollment of 40 students where there is excellent student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction. There’s no magic formula, but I believe there are sound guidelines.