Class Size Matters

Context:

I have been teaching A level history for over 20 years. The new A Level coursework element of Year 13 requires the students to research independently, and I was concerned that my Year 12 students may suffer when their time came. But I was presented with an unusual opportunity: could the fact that they were a very small class (just 6) allow me to teach them in a different way?

Introduction:

I already knew that much of the educational literature suggested no strong link between smaller class sizes and attainment. Reducing Class Sizes, EEF . This appears to be because teacher pedagogy tends not to adjust for the new setting. With a group of just six, I had an ideal opportunity to enhance my students’ independent learning skills, by allowing them to structure and manage their own learning to a greater extent than normal. I was informed also by work carried out by Faye Hedley and Becky Owen at Durrington School (Seven Monkeys); this suggests that students retain new information better when they undertake multiple activities on the same topic.

I introduced the Seven Monkeys to my six guinea pigs. They were willing participants, already interested in how to learn better and already good at taking and organising their notes. They knew that I was experimenting with the approach, and were happy to cooperate for the duration of the independent study (which would be about 10 weeks.)

Research question(s):

From the above, I crafted a research question: How much would the independent learning skills of the A level History students improve under conditions of self-guided study within a small class setting?

‘Independence’ is a hard thing to see, but may be observed by proxies. I invented my own criteria: a set of contributory characteristics, each of which would be a useful learning behaviour in its own right. I opted to look for:

a) ‘Neediness’ (revealed through the frequency and type of questions the students asked me);

b) ability to stay on task without being corrected (I called this ‘Quietness’);

c) the degree of ‘fruitful cooperation’ (whole group, or pairs); and

d) how well they maintained their schedule. I awarded points for each trait in each lesson, amounting to an ‘Independence Quotient’. I scored the class as a whole, rather than individuals, but I noted where any student was standing out.

Although the study was to be ‘self-guided’, I still had to secure a ‘high minimum expectation’. I set out 13 key questions (based on the main textbook and relating to an entire unit) and insisted that they each create a schedule for completion of several tasks for each, based on the Hedley-Owen Seven Monkeys model.

Research method(s):

I conducted before and after questionnaires with the students, to gauge their understanding of and competence in independent learning.

As a teacher I am ‘fully-embedded’ with the class; as such, I can observe their learning behaviour without altering it. Sitting at my desk, I took notes on them – collectively and individually – against my ‘Independence Quotient’ criteria. In that way I was able to track any changes, and note the impact of unanticipated events, such as external visitors to the class, and student absence. On three occasions, we had a group of up to six visitors – people who were considering an application to teacher training. I encouraged them to talk to my students, and in that way I was able to overhear their comments.

The risk with such a project is that it may damage their prospects in their exam. I am held accountable for the extent to which they meet or miss their targets, so the final part of my enquiry would be to measure that impact (or damage.)

Results and discussion:

At no point did any of them fall behind schedule: twice I had to slow some of them down, and remind them to revisit the Seven Monkeys before moving on to the next question. ‘Neediness’ turned out not to be an issue for them, a factor I believe related to the smallness of the class. They barely asked me a question at all, beyond requesting highlighters and printer paper. I recorded just two ‘content questions’ from the entire 10 weeks, which is remarkable given how reliant upon us for subject knowledge we assume our students are. Their ‘Quietness’ (what I termed their ability to stay on task without my intervention) generally improved over the 10 weeks. In the first couple of weeks, I was concerned that four of them were too often just chatting to each other, rather than collaborating on the task. These four had formed two pairs, whereas the remaining couple had opted to work the entire time on their own. I held back from directly intervening, but instead hosted a short discussion with them about how they felt the project was progressing. This had the instant effect of refocusing them all, which lasted at least until the half-term point. The extent to which they cooperated was more difficult to analyse. For almost the entire study, the two working alone remained isolated: they had clearly opted to work that way, but I had hoped they would see the benefits of at least discussing their ideas with the rest. This happened only at the very end of the unit, when the class spontaneously came together to set and do revision quizzes. The two pairs – once they had got into an on-task rhythm – collaborated by sharing notes, dividing the ‘Seven Monkeys’ tasks, and re-working their partner’s notes. This continued also outside of the classroom.

By Easter, I was awarding the class the maximum of 10 ‘Independence Quotient’ points.

Their questionnaires – and overheard comments to visitors – offered some interesting insights. Five of the students felt strongly that their independent learning habits had improved; one felt already strong in the area. Some of them commented that they now felt more likely to apply to university, because they felt more able to cope with working unguided. Two of them claimed that they probably did more work, completed more extensive notes, because they were afraid they might leave something important out; if I had been leading them, they would just have trusted me to teach them ‘what they needed to know’. All of them said that they would be happy if other teachers tried a similar study, but none believed it would happen beyond the occasional ‘independent’ task.

They took the AS exam, and in the summer got their results: 2 As, 3 Bs and 1 C. Two students had met their targets, four had exceeded them. On the ALPs measure of added value at A level, the class scored a 2, which is just one short of the top score. As the independent study module was the only difference in my normal approach, this indicates  that this was the key factor responsible for their improved outcomes.

Conclusions:

I can conclude that the independent learning module did at least no harm to their AS outcomes. They are certainly significantly more competent and confident when asked to work independently. They are currently researching for their A level coursework unit (a historiography of the Holocaust), and I often hear them say, ‘I love this!’ when I instruct them to work without me. At this stage in their Year 13 course, they are working almost entirely on their own. They spent the summer reading an entire history book and selecting readings from it for their classmates; this is something I have never before been able to get students to do successfully. Several months on from completion of the independent study, they still refer to it and credit it for their confidence now.

Evaluation:

An opportunity arose in that I was presented with a smaller than normal group. Any subsequent A level group would need the same level of independence, but it would be difficult to recreate the same circumstances again unless the class were similarly small. To that extent I can say, for me, that the size of the class did matter. Certainly, with a similarly small group again I would repeat the independent study unit.

Had the students’ note-taking skills not already been sound (I had tested these earlier in the course), I would have had to either teach them those or risk failure with the module. To this extent, it is arguable that they already possessed skills akin to independence; certainly, their readiness to engage with the project would suggest that. Again, the size of the group helps here: had there been greater divergence of skills, I would have had to compensate for this in other ways.

The convergence of their pre-existing skills and the smallness of the group certainly aided the success of the project. Were both factors necessary? A teacher cannot control the size of their class (at least not ethically). But they certainly do influence the ability of their students to take notes. It is arguable that, even with a larger group, a teacher who first secures strong note-taking skills with their students could then embark on a similar (if shorter) independent learning module.

The study drew admirers from colleagues, but no imitators. They all could see the potential benefits to their students, but were convinced that the heavy content of their courses is prohibitive. They were unmoved by my claim that the students actually covered more content in more depth this way. They were astounded that I had set aside 10 weeks for it. On the other hand, my head of department (teaching the parallel unit of the AS course), while not engaging them explicitly in independent learning, could see that they were transferring their approach from my course to his.

References:

My blog, reporting the study in slightly more depth, can be read here.

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