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When does online class size matter? Read the study

Oregon State Ecampus research reveals that 30 students might be the tipping point

Nov. 1, 2021

The Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit recently conducted a study on a rarely researched topic in online education: class size.

What the researchers found is that students’ grades were higher in certain online classes that had lower enrollment, and that it may be beneficial to limit particular kinds of courses to 30 students or fewer.

Class size has been discussed for hundreds of years, especially in K-12 contexts. However, fewer studies have examined class size in online higher education courses.

Enrollment in online courses and programs has consistently increased for more than a decade, and some leaders in higher education project that online education may become even more prevalent as instructors and students continue to navigate life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors of the Oregon State study — Rebecca Arlene Thomas, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar with the Ecampus Research Unit, and director Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, Ph.D. — pursued this topic to help advance the quality standards of online higher education.

“Investigating class sizes at the university level is important because administrators can use these results to make recommendations about setting limits on class sizes,” Dello Stritto said. “While capping at 30 may be beneficial for upper-division and STEM courses, in other types of lower-division or liberal arts courses, larger class sizes may not be problematic.

“The results suggest we should leverage the benefits of smaller class sizes for courses where students could benefit the most.”

Oregon State’s study found, in part, that:

  • Final grades in online STEM and upper-division courses were higher in classes with fewer than 30 students compared to classes with 30 or more students.
  • There is no relationship between class size and D or F course grades, or course withdrawals in STEM and upper-division online courses.
  • 30 students may be the tipping point where the benefits of “small” online courses may wear off.  The authors suggest that instructors may change course aspects such as their pedagogy, learning outcomes or communication once courses exceed the 30-student threshold.

Read the publication — titled “Student Outcomes in Online Courses: When Does Class Size Matter?” — and learn more about how the Ecampus Research Unit contributes to effective online teaching, learning and program administration.

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