Class Size Task Force

Class Size Survey Report

April 9, 2010


During the Spring 2010, the Class Size Task Force conducted two surveys. The first surveyed instructors who were currently teaching large classes (defined as 80 students or more). This survey was both quantitative and qualitative in nature, and focused on issues of instructional methods, student-faculty interaction, student learning, and faculty workload comparing large classes to small classes (defined as classes with 40 or fewer students). This survey will be referred to as the “Faculty Large Classes Survey.”

The second survey was qualitative in nature and asked department chairs, program directors, and associative deans to comment on the any changes in class sizes that have occurred in recent years, with particular emphasis on 2009-2010, as well as on the reasons behind any class size changes. The second survey will be referred to as the “Chair’s Large Classes Survey.”

The complete results from both surveys can be found on the Faculty Senate website ( This report summarizes the main conclusions.

Faculty Large Classes Survey

Survey invitations were e-mailed to all instructors teaching courses of 80 students or more during the Spring 2010 semester (131 instructors teaching 155 sections). The response rate was almost 50 percent with 65 of 131 instructors completing the survey. Faculty from all ranks were represented in the survey, with nearly 23 percent of respondents identifying themselves as full professors, 27 percent as associate professors, 23 percent as assistant professors, 24 percent as lecturers, and 1.5 percent (one response) from a FERP faculty member.

The typical respondent has taught at Sacramento State for 10.68 years, with a range from one semester to thirty-five years. Not only did these instructors have substantial experience teaching at Sacramento State, they also had experience teaching large classes, with the typical respondent having taught a class of 80 students or more over nine times during their career. Here again, there was a substantial range of experience with one instructor teaching a large class for the first time, while another reported teaching large classes more than forty times.

Most of the 65 respondents taught in Arts and Letters (20) and Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (19), although 10 faculty from Natural Sciences and Mathematics and 9 faculty from Business also completed the survey. The remaining seven responses were from faculty in the other colleges.

This survey focused on whether there are differences in the instructional tools used by these instructors in both large classes (80 students or more) and small classes (40 students or fewer). It also asked questions regarding instructor perceptions of student learning, faculty-student interaction, and faculty workload.

Instructional Methods

The results from the faculty survey show very few differences in instructional tools used in classes with 80 or more compared to classes with 40 or fewer. As the results in Table 1 indicate, one statistically significant difference (10 percent significance) is that instructors use a blackboard or chalkboard more frequently in small classes as compared to large classes. The other difference (5 percent significance level) is that clickers are used more frequently in large classes. Although these two differences are statistically significant, they are not particularly large in magnitude.

Table 1

Instructional Tools by Class Size

Mean Responses
Large Classes
(80 or more) / Small Classes
(40 or fewer)
Blackboard/White Board / 3.32 / 3.73*
PowerPoint with Computer / 3.87 / 3.81
Other Computer-Based Overheads / 2.09 / 2.07
Overheads with Projector or Camera / 2.41 / 2.14
Clickers / 1.59** / 1.12
Chat Rooms / 1.64 / 1.50
SacCT / 3.38 / 3.30
Commercially-Provided Online Resources / 2.56 / 2.63

Notes: The scale was Never = 1, Rarely = 2, Sometimes = 3, Frequently = 4, and Always = 5. The results reported in the table are the arithmetic means for each question by class size. For example, a mean of 3.0 implies that the average instructor “sometimes” uses a particular instructional technology. T-tests, assuming equal variances, were used to test whether there were statistical differences between mean responses by class size. * denotes the ten-percent significance level, while ** denotes the five-percent significance level.

In terms of all the other instructional tools reported in Table 1, there are small and statistically insignificant differences by class size. Although there is evidence in the literature that large classes should be taught using different tools and strategies, the results from the survey suggest that there is very little difference in the instructional tools employed by instructors at Sacramento State who teach both large and small classes.

Student Learning, Interaction, Writing, and Faculty Workloads

Faculty report far greater differences in terms their perceptions of student learning, faculty-student interaction, the use of writing assignments, and faculty workload based on class size. As the results in Table 2 illustrate, all of the reported differences are statistically significant at well beyond the one-percent significance level.

Table 2

“Compared to your small classes, how would you rate

the following with respect to your large classes?”

Substantially Less Than
=1 / Somewhat Less Than
=2 / The Same
=3 / Somewhat More Than
=4 / Substantially More Than
=5 / Mean
Student Learning / 15.38% / 35.38% / 44.62% / 3.08% / 1.54% / 2.40***
Student interaction with one another / 38.46% / 41.54% / 10.77% / 9.23% / 0% / 1.91***
Student interaction with me / 49.21% / 33.33% / 11.11% / 4.76% / 1.59% / 1.76***
Number of writing assignments / 55.38% / 20.00% / 20.00% / 4.62% / 0% / 1.74***
Written feedback provided to students / 50.77% / 20.00% / 20.00% / 6.15% / 3.08% / 1.91***
Use of multiple-choice questions / 6.35% / 1.59% / 20.63% / 30.16% / 41.27% / 3.98***
My class preparation time / 3.08% / 1.54% / 58.46% / 13.85% / 23.08% / 3.52***
My time spent grading / 4.62% / 6.15% / 24.62% / 30.77% / 33.85% / 3.83***

Notes: t-tests were used to determine whether the mean responses for each part of the question were statistically different than 3 (the same between large and small classes). *** denotes that the sample mean is statistically different from 3.0 (the same) at the one-percent level or greater.

Overall, faculty teaching large classes in Spring 2010 believe that large classes result in less student learning, less interaction between students in the class and between students and the faculty member, fewer writing assignments and less written feedback provided to students. Even with a greater use of multiple-choice questions in large classes, faculty report more class preparation time and more time grading in classes of 80 or more compared to classes of 40 or fewer.

Faculty Comments

In addition to the numerical responses reported above, almost all faculty who completed the survey provided written feedback pertaining to questions about the advantages and disadvantages of large classes, and advice they would give to other instructors teaching large classes for the first time. In addition, about half of the respondents also included additional written comments.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of faculty have a negative view of large classes, which is consistent with the numerical responses reported above. In terms of advantages, many faculty believed that the cost savings associated with larger classes allowed the university to provide more seats to students to allow them to get into courses. One faculty member said:

Pedagogically, I cannot think of a single advantage in terms of student learning. In the current climate, large classes allow more students to “take” the class, except that they don’t really take it in the same sense as they would have in a smaller section.

In terms of disadvantages, the responses were again consistent with the numerical results, although faculty also brought up problems of decreased attendance in large classes and challenges in controlling larger classes and greater stress associated with large classes. One faculty member wrote:

Stress. A large class increases the distress an instructor experiences. The probability of having dysfunctional students, unreasonable demands, and student drama increases in proportion to the number of students.

Faculty also provided many comments regarding the advice they would give their fellow colleagues who are teaching in a larger classroom environment for the first time. Many of these comments focused on issues of classroom management, management of workload, and ways to maintain student interest and interaction. One person wrote, “Be the best you can and do the best you can. As a member of the faculty, CSU dictates what we teach but we can only do our best.”

In the “additional comment” section, several faculty members expressed their concern that there are not adequately designed classrooms, sufficient support in terms of teaching assistants and student assistants, enough opportunities for professional development, or the technology needed to make large classes work as well as they could. One respondent wrote, “If the university values large sections, then it should be willing to provide adequate resources, and that includes preferential schedules, teaching assistants, and state of the art teaching technology.” Another wrote,

We need to get real about large classes. What subjects work in that format? What faculty can handle the load? How do we reward the people who are carrying the financial load? Don’t let deans . . . drive course design and selection. Few, if any, have ever done it.

It is impossible to summarize the volume and diversity of comments in a summary report, so we strongly encourage the interested reader to view all of the comments on the Faculty Senate website.

Chair’s Large Classes Survey

A separate survey and invitation were sent to all department chairs, program directors, and associate deans to ask about the magnitude of overall class size changes in their programs in recent years, with particular emphasis on 2009-2010. We also asked about the reasons and rationale behind any class size changes. Unlike the instructor survey, this survey was not quantitative and only asked open ended questions. The response rate for this survey was lower as well with only thirteen responses.

Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from a survey with only thirteen responses, there is widespread consensus that class sizes have increased in recent years as a result of budgetary pressures and increased student demand. One responded summarized the dilemma, “The balance is always what educational quality can we provide at what cost.”

This survey also recognized issues of increased workload and stress on faculty, but also emphasized issues of space allocation campus and the difficulty in finding appropriate classrooms at desired times.