Smaller class sizes are not always associated with better pupil performance and achievement


A new statistical analysis of data from a long-term study on the teaching of mathematics and science has found that smaller class sizes are not always associated with better pupil performance and achievement.

The precise effect of smaller class sizes can vary between countries, academic subjects, years, and different cognitive and non-cognitive skills, with many other factors likely playing a role. These findings are reported in a paper in Research Papers in Education.

Smaller class sizes in schools are generally seen as highly desirable, especially by parents. With smaller class sizes, teachers can more easily maintain control and give more attention to each pupil. As such, many countries limit the maximum size of a class, often at around 30 pupils.

But research into the effects of class size has generally proved inconclusive, with some studies finding benefits and some not.

Furthermore, these studies have often been rather small scale, have tended to focus purely on reading and mathematics, and have not considered the effect of class size on non-cognitive skills such as interest and attentiveness.

To try to get a clearer picture, Professor Spyros Konstantopoulos and Ting Shen at Michigan State University, US, decided to analyze data produced by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Every four years since 1995, TIMSS has monitored the performance and achievement of fourth grade (age 9-10) and eighth grade (age 13-14) pupils from around 50 countries in mathematics and science.

It records pupils’ academic ability in these subjects and their self-reported attitude and interest in them, and also contains information on class sizes.

To make the analysis more manageable, the researchers limited it to data from eighth grade pupils in four European countries – Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia – collected in 2003, 2007 and 2011.

They chose these four countries because they all mandate maximum class sizes, which would help to make the statistical analysis more reliable.

Despite these limitations, the data still encompassed 4,277 pupils from 231 classes in 151 schools, making it much larger than most previous studies on class size.

It was also the first study to investigate the effects of class size on both specific science subjects, comprising biology, chemistry, physics and earth science, and non-cognitive skills.

The analysis revealed that smaller class sizes were associated with benefits in Romania and Lithuania, but not in Hungary and Slovenia.

The beneficial effects were most marked in Romania, where smaller classes were associated with greater academic achievement in mathematics, physics, chemistry and earth science, as well as greater enjoyment of learning mathematics.

In Lithuania, however, smaller class sizes were mainly associated with improvements in non-cognitive skills such as greater enjoyment in learning biology and chemistry, rather than higher academic achievement in these subjects.

The beneficial effects were also only seen in certain years.

“Most class size effects were not different than zero, which suggests that reducing class size does not automatically guarantee improvements in student performance,” said Professor Konstantopoulos. “Many other classroom processes and dynamics factor in and have to work well together to achieve successful outcomes in student learning.”

The researchers think smaller class sizes may have had greater beneficial effects on pupils in Romania and Lithuania than in Hungary and Slovenia because schools in Romania and Lithuania have fewer resources.

“This finding is perhaps due to the fact that class size effects are more likely to be detected in countries with limited school resources where teacher quality is lower on average,” said Professor Konstantopoulos.

The prevalence of bullying and victimization in classrooms is not merely the result of individual characteristics of the bullying perpetrators and their targets but is influenced by features of the classroom environment (Saarento et al., 2015).

These contextual characteristics include the anti-bullying attitudes and behaviors of peer bystanders (Salmivalli et al., 2011) and of teachers (Veenstra et al., 2014Oldenburg et al., 2015), as well as aspects of the peer social network, such as the degree of status hierarchy in the classroom (Garandeau et al., 2014).

Classroom size – i.e., the number of students in the class – is a structural feature that has often been investigated in relation to academic achievement (see Finn et al., 2003), with smaller classrooms often found to be beneficial for academic performance (Hoxby, 2000Shin and Raudenbush, 2011) and even earnings later in life (Fredriksson et al., 2013).

Intuitively, we would expect the same advantageous effects of small classrooms on bullying. Smaller classrooms should logically protect against bullying thanks to higher adult/child ratios, allowing a more effective monitoring of children’s negative behaviors by school personnel.

Classroom size has been investigated in many studies on victimization and bullying, often as a control variable rather than a main predictor of interest. Surprisingly, very few studies found evidence of a protective effect of smaller classroom networks on bullying or victimization (Whitney and Smith, 1993Khoury-Kassabri et al., 2004). The large majority of studies examining the link between classroom size and bullying or victimization found them to be either negatively associated (e.g., Vervoort et al., 2010) or unrelated (e.g., Thornberg et al., 2017). However, the reason why bullying and victimization would be more prevalent in smaller classrooms remains unclear.

The present study aims to test for three possible explanations for this negative association: First, the negative association may not reflect an actual social phenomenon but result from a measurement effect, related to the way peer-reported scores are computed. In this case, the prevalence-size link should be negative for peer-reported, but not for self-reported bullying and victimization (Hypothesis 1).

Second, it is possible that bullying perpetrators enjoy higher status and are more socially connected in smaller classrooms, which in turn facilitates their bullying behavior. Engaging in bullying may be associated with higher perceived popularity and more friendships in smaller than in larger classrooms (Hypothesis 2).

Third, victims may have less social support and fewer opportunities for friendships in smaller classrooms, which in turn could contribute to the maintenance of their victimization. Being victimized may be associated with lower perceived popularity and fewer friendships in smaller than in larger classrooms (Hypothesis 3).

These hypotheses will be tested with large samples from two countries, using both self-reports and peer-reports of bullying and victimization.

Associations of Classroom Size With Bullying and Victimization: Does Informant Type Matter?

Contrary to expectations, research seldom found support for a positive link between classroom size and bullying and victimization (Whitney and Smith, 1993Khoury-Kassabri et al., 2004). It is noteworthy that these studies used only self-reports and did not operationalize class size as the exact number of students in each classroom but as the average class size in the schools (by dividing the number of students in the school by the number of classrooms).

In the review of the literature, the type of informant – self or peers – appears to be relevant for the strength and direction of the association between classroom size and bullying or victimization.

All studies showing no significant association between these variables used self-reported measures of bullying (O’ Moore et al., 1997Boyesen and Bru, 1999Wolke et al., 2001Scheithauer et al., 2006Salmivalli et al., 2011Coehlo and Sousa, 2018) or victimization (Whitney and Smith, 1993O’ Moore et al., 1997Wolke et al., 2001, German sample; Stefanek et al., 2011Saarento et al., 2013Thornberg et al., 2017Coehlo and Sousa, 2018).

Negative associations between classroom size and bullying or victimization have been found with both self-reported and peer-reported measures. A higher classroom size was found to be associated with a lower prevalence of peer-reported bullying (Vervoort et al., 2010Garandeau et al., 2014) peer-reported victimization (Vervoort et al., 2010Saarento et al., 2013), self-reported bullying (Stefanek et al., 2011) and self-reported victimization (Wolke et al., 2001, British sample; Verkuyten and Thijs, 2002).

Furthermore, a study using dyadic nominations of who bullies whom showed that there was less bullying in classrooms with a higher number of students (Tolsma et al., 2013).

When measures of effect size were available for these studies, which were heterogeneous in various methodological aspects (e.g., sample, demographics, control variables etc.), they indicated that each additional student in the classroom was associated with a decrease of 0.06 to 0.1 (on a scale of 0 to 1) in peer-reported measures and of approximately 0.02 (on a scale of 0 to 4) in self-reported measures.

Taken together, these findings hint that the negative link between classroom size and bullying or victimization may be partly accounted for by the measurement of the variables. It would hold mainly for peer-reported bullying and victimization – which are obtained by computing proportions of nominations received by peers.

It is possible indeed that, in small classrooms, the probability is higher than in large classrooms for students to score high in peer-reported measures, since they are computed by dividing the number of nominations received by classmates by the number of nominators.

As smaller classrooms have fewer nominators, students receiving for example only one or two nominations should score higher in smaller than in larger classrooms. As self-reports rely on single informants, the number of participants in the classroom should not affect self-reported scores.

Moderating Effects of Classroom Size on the Social Power of Perpetrators and Targets?

Another explanation for findings of a lower prevalence of bullying in larger classrooms is that bullying perpetrators, who tend to be perceived as more popular than non-bullying students (e.g., Caravita et al., 2009), may have even more social power in smaller classrooms. As bullying often involves the manipulation of a peer group by one or two bullies (see Garandeau and Cillessen, 2006), it might be more difficult for children who initiate bullying to exert influence over the whole peer network when this network is large.

Opposing the ring-leader bullies might be more challenging in more restricted social environments. Similarly, bystanders may be more likely to side with the bullies in smaller classes.

This support for bullying perpetrators could be reflected in higher levels of popularity, an indicator of influence among peers, and a higher number of friends for bullies in smaller classrooms. In turn, those who engage in bullying behavior should be more apt to maintain and even increase such behavior if they are socially rewarded for it.

Therefore, the negative association between classroom size and bullying (or victimization) could be explained by the higher levels of perceived popularity and the higher number of friends for bullying perpetrators in smaller classrooms relative to larger classrooms.

A third explanation is the possibility that victims may have less social power or support in smaller classrooms. Victimized children generally have low levels of popularity (e.g., Pouwels et al., 2016) and are less likely than other children to have reciprocal friends (e.g., Scholte et al., 2009).

For these victimized children, it may be more difficult to find at least one friend in smaller compared to larger classrooms, as the number of possible social connections is more limited.

This restriction in friendship opportunities for victims could account for higher victimization levels in smaller classrooms, as having friends tends to protect against victimization (Boulton et al., 1999Hodges et al., 1999Serdiouk et al., 2016).

The Present Study

The relation of class size to bullying and victimization needs to be better understood. The two main objectives of the present study were a) to test for the direction (positive or negative) of the association of classroom size with bullying and victimization, using both peer-reports and self-reports, in two samples from two countries; b) to put to the test three possible explanations for these surprising findings.

First, we formulated the general hypothesis that the effect of classroom size on peer-reported bullying and peer-reported victimization would be negative, on the basis of previous findings from the literature.

To further explore this effect, we tested for both linear and curvilinear associations. The first explanation that we put to the test was that this negative association was due to a measurement effect. Negative links would be found with peer-reports of bullying and victimization, but not with self-reported measures (Hypothesis 1).

Our second hypothesis was that bullying perpetrators enjoyed higher social power in smaller classrooms. If this holds true, the associations between bullying and perceived popularity, and between bullying and having friends, would be stronger in smaller classrooms (Hypothesis 2).

Our third hypothesis was that victimized children had less social power in smaller classrooms. If this holds true, children higher in victimization would have lower perceived popularity and fewer friends in smaller classrooms (Hypothesis 3).

We tested these hypotheses with participants in late childhood and early adolescence, as this is the age when school bullying problems tend to be the most prevalent. To provide a more valid test of our hypotheses, we chose to conduct our analyses on two datasets from two countries, Austria and the Netherlands.

The objective of the present study was not to compare findings between the two samples or countries, but rather to increase the generalizability of the results. The Austrian sample was previously used in the study by Stefanek et al. (2011), which did examine classroom size in relation only to self-reported victimization and bullying.

More information:Research Papers in … 2671522.2019.1697733


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