Class Size in Online Courses

We often talk of class size and how it affects student learning and instructor performance. I’ve just read a study, published by Merlot in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, that discusses this question, Classrooms Without Walls: A Comparison of Instructor Performance in Online Courses Differing in Class Size. by Chris Sorensen, Ph.D.

The results of this study suggest that there may be some negative consequences in terms of instructor performance and the quality of instruction in online course with larger class sizes…. Typically, the thought is that smaller class sizes allow for more meaningful student-to-instructor interaction and a higher quality of instruction.

Surprise. Teaching Presence matters.

The optimal class size they found was 15.9 students when 10 or less is small, 11-19 is medium, and 20-30 is large. I agree. 15 to 16 students in an online discussion creates enough varied perspectives on a question to make an interesting conversation. Less than 10 doesn’t provided enough variation. Close to 30 can be difficult to navigate. But realistically, especially for introductory undergraduate courses, the numbers are sometimes 200, seldom 10 to 20.

What was more interesting to me to share are the definitions and rubric used to measure “Distinguished Teaching Performance.” Keep these in mind as you design your next course.

Fostering Critical Thinking Challenging students to elaborate on their thoughts, question their assumptions, examine biases, communicate in a clear and concise manner, and defend their positions throughout the course

Instructive Feedback Providing feedback that challenges and inspires students, while providing specific suggestions to improve the quality of their work and thinking.

High Expectations Demonstrating high expectations throughout the course, while holding students accountable for insightful exchanges and high quality performance on assignments, and promoting active engagement in their own learning.

Establishing Relationships Creatively uses available tools (Announcements, Instructor Guidance, Faculty Expectations, Ask Your Instructor, Emails, Discussion Forum) and strategies to enhance relationships, creating a community of learners willing to take risks and actively engage with one another.

Instructor Expertise Effectively and consistently utilizes expertise in subject matter by providing personal experiences, connecting course knowledge to real-world examples. Enhances course content and resources to encourage student comprehension and application of course learning outcomes.

Many faculty I’ve spoken with recognize that online teaching allows you to personalize the instruction and establish relationships with students, often more than in a f2f class. It is true “that as class size increases, instructors provide less quality feedback because they may not have the time to provide quality instruction to a large number of students.” But course design and instructional strategies can help faculty give feedback and examples of expertise to a larger group of students: group collaboration, discussion groups of 15, learning modules that embed good questions, peer and self assessments, recorded videos of faculty sharing expert examples and demonstrations, one summary post responding to student posts rather than individual response to each post, … are some examples of providing engagement and feedback more efficiently.

How do you engage with your students, especially if you have a large enrollment course of 50 or more?? Please share!!



4 thoughts on “Class Size in Online Courses

  1. vmedinamessner

    I normally teach 600 to 800 + students in my online classes. It is important to create a communication protocol. For instance “e-mail” is considered an official method for communication. Students use e-mail to ask or share concerns relating to specific grades or problems they are experiencing in the class. Students are expected to check their official VCU e-mail. I ask students to add the name of the class in the subject line, so I know quickly which class it comes from.
    I ask students to post general questions about course policies and structure in our private Facebook group. This encourages students to help each other. I double check and make sure that they are sharing the correct information. That is also a space for them to share interesting articles or set up study groups.

    Few students visit my office during office hours. However, I’m always glad to meet them in person when they visit me.

    As for the interactions and discussions about class content, I use the discussion forum feature in Blackboard. I organize students in different teams. I provide general feedback to the class. I also provide a rubric and tutorials to highlight best practices.

    I also use video lectures and create video tutorials to walk them through the content. I also create routines with deadlines. Many students struggle with time management. So, I send reminders about deadlines. Overall, it is challenging to manage large online classes because you need to breakdown the communication and figure out different levels of engagement.

    Yes, the optimal class size would be 15 to 20 students, but that’s not the case in many introductory undergraduate courses.

    1. Joyce Kincannon Post author

      Your organization makes it possible! You implement the ideas of student teams, communication protocols, rubrics, and encouragement of students to share and help each other learn. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Valerie Holton

    This is helpful as we are deciding how many students to register for CMST 691 Collaborative Curiosity.


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