Dr. Lee and Dr. Dapremont are Assistant Professors, Loewenberg School of Nursing, University of Memphis, and Mr. Sasser is Adjunct Faculty, Department of Nursing, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Memphis, Tennessee.
The authors have no financial or proprietary interest in the materials presented herein.
Address correspondence to Shirleatha Lee, PhD, RN, CNE, Assistant Professor, Loewenberg School of Nursing, University of Memphis, 210 Newport Hall, Memphis, TN 38152; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Institutions of higher education in the United States have experienced an increased student enrollment for more than 2 decades (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). The national need for highly educated professionals to enter the work-force and meet societal demands has contributed to this trend. Many universities and colleges face unexpected challenges with the continued increase in enrollment—most specifically, larger class sizes. This is of great concern because class size is considered one of the most important factors that influence the teaching process (Cakmak, 2009). However, limited research has been conducted on this issue, specifically within the nursing discipline.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) (2009) reported that over the past 10 years, baccalaureate nursing programs have steadily increased student enrollment, with a 5.7% increase in 2010. A benefit of the increased nursing student enrollment is that current nursing shortages may decline. However, a national survey by the AACN (2010) reports a 6.9% vacancy rate of nursing faculty, with 74.6% of schools of nursing reporting a need for additional faculty. Therefore, high student numbers translate into many uncertainties for nursing administrators and faculties as the shortage of nursing faculty continually increases. Factors that contribute to a shortage of nursing faculty are insufficient funding, unwillingness of administrators to hire additional faculty, limited qualified applicants, and the inability to recruit due to low pay and high workload (AACN, 2010). The coupled factors of high student enrollment and faculty shortages may result in large class sizes that affect student satisfaction and performance. This may ultimately affect student retention.
Chapman and Ludlow (2010) examined the effect of class size on student learning in a variety of graduate and undergraduate university courses and reported “a statistically significant negative relationship between class size and perceived student learning (r2 = 0.39, p < 0.001)” (p. 117). The students and instructors in that study reported more positive perceived student learning and satisfaction in smaller classes compared with larger classes (Chapman & Ludlow, 2010). Large class sizes are perceived to be of lower quality by students due to difficulties hearing and seeing in the classroom and because of the inability to actively engage in lecture discussions (Leufer, 2007; Westerlund, 2008). Actively engaging students during lecture is important to teach critical skills, and a large class size may hinder this (Bressler & Bressler, 2007; Cakmak, 2009).
Arias and Walker (2004) examined the effect of class size on student performance using test scores in several undergraduate economics courses; their findings indicated that a small class size had a significantly positive effect on student performance. Also, a study conducted by Kokkelenberg, Dillon, and Christy (2008) examined the effect of student performance on class size in undergraduate students enrolled in the Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Development, Engineering, Nursing, and Management disciplines. Their results indicated that student scores were higher in smaller classes (< 20 students), but scores remained fairly constant for classes containing more than 20 students (Kokkelenberg et al., 2008). However, in contrast to these findings, a study conducted by Guder, Malliaris, and Jalilvand (2009) that measured student and faculty performance in large and small classes of undergraduate students enrolled in business courses revealed that no significant difference was found in student performance based on grade point average in large and small classes.
Several studies suggest that student satisfaction is most affected by class size (Arias & Walker, 2004; Chapman & Ludlow, 2010); therefore, the nursing class environment should positively affect students and learning (Leufer, 2007). Small classes display reports of higher perceived satisfaction and learning by students, although the literature reveals varied results for student performance. Therefore, it is important that the discipline of nursing investigate students’ perceived satisfaction and outcomes in large and small class sizes. Negative perceived satisfaction and student failures in large classes may contribute to high attrition rates, further exacerbating the clinical and faculty nursing shortage. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to identify the baccalaureate nursing students’ perceived satisfaction with enrollment in a small nursing class versus a large nursing class. In addition, this study seeks to determine whether a significant difference exists between test scores for students enrolled in a small nursing class versus those in a large nursing class. Three research questions are addressed:
- Do students perceive that large nursing classes provide adequate time for classroom discussion, in comparison with a smaller class size?
- Do students perceive that large nursing classes provide effective socialization with other students and faculty during and after class, in comparison with a smaller class?
- Are test scores for students enrolled in a large nursing class significantly lower than peers enrolled in a smaller class?
It was hypothesized that students enrolled in the large nursing class will be less satisfied with the time available for classroom discussion and less satisfied with the ability to effectively socialize with students and faculty in the classroom setting. In addition, it was hypothesized that the test scores for students enrolled in the large nursing class will be significantly lower than those of peers enrolled in a smaller class.
At the completion of the Medical–Surgical Nursing course, 156 undergraduate baccalaureate nursing students enrolled in either a large (n = 98) or smaller (n = 58) class section were asked to complete a survey. The survey examined the students’ perceived satisfaction of the adequacy of their classroom discussion time and of the effect of class size on socialization with both students and faculty. The survey was completed by 110 students: 61 from the large nursing class and 49 from the smaller nursing class. The students’ ages ranged from 20 to 50 years, with a mean age of 24.7 years, and 85.5% of the sample were women.
Nursing students were enrolled in either a large (n = 98) or smaller (n = 58) class section of Medical–Surgical Nursing. Both class sections were instructed by the same faculty member once per week for 4 contact hours. Students in both class sections were provided the same syllabus, course content, and examinations. The examinations were administered at the same time for each class section. At the completion of the course, students were asked to complete a 5-question pilot survey related to their perception of the adequacy of time for classroom discussion, the ability of the classroom setting to provide an environment for effective socialization with both students and the faculty during and after class, the effect of class size on learning, and overall satisfaction with enrollment in either a small or large class. The survey was measured using a 5-point Likert scale (strongly agree = 5, agree = 4, neither agree nor disagree = 3, disagree = 2, and strongly disagree = 1).
The survey stated, “in terms of satisfaction how would you rate the following: (1) My classroom setting allows time for adequate classroom discussion; (2) My classroom setting provides an environment for effective socialization with other students during and after class; (3) My classroom setting provides an environment for effective socialization with the faculty during and after class; (4) The number of students in my class positively impacted how I learned the material; (5) Overall, I am satisfied with the number of students enrolled in my class.” The survey also collected demographic data. The course instructor was not present during the distribution or collection of the survey. In addition, the survey did not contain any information that could be linked to the student. The validity and reliability of the pilot survey is yet to be established, and the results of this study will be used to further evaluate the effectiveness of this tool. Institutional review board approval was obtained for the conduction of this pilot study. Participation was completely voluntary and did not affect the students’ grades in any way.
Also, mean test scores were obtained for each of the four unit examinations and the comprehensive final examination for all students enrolled in either the large or small class section. These scores were compared between the large and small classes of nursing students. We used SPSS version 18.0 software with a p value ≤ 0.05 set for statistical significance. Frequency distributions and descriptive statistics were obtained, and analysis of variance was used to compare student perceptions and test scores between students enrolled in the large and small class sections.
The results of our study indicated that students in the smaller class had significantly higher satisfaction scores for all measures on the survey. First, the perception of students enrolled in the small class of having adequate time for classroom discussion was significantly higher than the large class (p = 0.000). In addition, the students in the small class had significantly higher satisfaction scores that indicated the classroom setting provided an environment that allowed for effective socialization with other students (p = 0.002) and faculty (p = 0.000). The students enrolled in the small class also displayed significantly higher satisfaction scores indicating that the number of students enrolled in the course positively affected how they learned the material (p = 0.000). Overall, the students enrolled in the small nursing class were significantly more satisfied with the number of students enrolled in the class (p = 0.000). There was no significant difference noted between test scores of students enrolled in the large and small classes for examinations one (p = 0.418), two (p = 0.645), three (p = 0.281), and four (p = 0.081) or for the final comprehensive examination (p = 0.879).
The findings from our study support the hypothesis that students enrolled in a large nursing class are less satisfied with the time available for classroom discussion and the ability to effectively socialize with peers and faculty in comparison with a smaller class. However, our findings did not support the hypothesis that test scores of the students enrolled in the large nursing class would be significantly lower than those of peers enrolled in the smaller class.
Several factors may contribute to students in the smaller class having increased satisfaction with the time allotted for classroom discussion and the ability to socialize with peers and faculty. First, as nursing classes become larger, students are more reluctant to discuss classroom topics. Students in large classes often fear they are holding up the class or that their questions are not appropriate. Faculty instructing large classes should encourage students to openly discuss relevant topics during class and communicate with faculty before and after class and during breaks. Therefore, faculty may need to make adjustments in their teaching strategies to improve student satisfaction (Arias & Walker, 2004). Guder et al. (2009) described that the successful transition in the School of Business required a transition not only in teaching strategies, but also in additional resources. Nursing faculty of large classes can identify evidence-based teaching strategies to actively engage students, such as the 1-minute paper (Harwood, 1996; Northern Illinois University, 2004) or the audience response system (Lee & Dapremont, in press; Shapiro, 2009). In addition, faculty could encourage discussion among students outside of the classroom using course discussion boards, chat rooms, or social networking Web sites. In large classes, faculty can build relationships by learning the names of students enrolled in the class and walk among the students to improve faculty–student interactions (Leufer, 2007; Simon, 2008; Westerlund, 2008). This has been reported to be effective because students will try harder when there is a personal connection (Arias & Walker, 2004).
Research suggests that students in smaller classes obtain higher scores on tests than do students enrolled in larger classes (Arias & Walker, 2004; Guder et al., 2009). In addition, studies also suggest that class size has no effect on student learning (Westerlund, 2008). Our findings indicate there was no significant difference between the test scores of students enrolled in the large or small class. The similar test grades for students in both the large and small class could be associated with the number of students enrolled in our smaller class. Several studies identify small classes as having between 10 and 30 students (Guder et al., 2009; Leufer, 2007; Westerlund, 2008), and in our study the small class size consisted of 58 students. This could be considered large by some standards. Hence, additional research is warranted using a small nursing class with no more than 30 students.
A limitation to this study is that the measurement of “satisfaction” may vary across settings. Within the context of this study, satisfaction is defined as “the fulfillment of a need or want” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2011). Students’ perceptions of their individual needs or wants in regard to the factors being measured can be different for each individual. Therefore, the comparison of our findings to other populations may be limited. In addition, although both course sections were taught by the same instructor, students may have collaborated with students in the opposite class section in study groups or by alternative methods that could have influenced our study findings.
Students had more positive perceptions and were more satisfied with the small class size, although overall class size had no effect on test performance. Although class size did not affect students’ test scores, our results revealed that students perceived that large class size diminished class discussion time and the ability to effectively socialize with peers and faculty. Large class sizes are an economical alternative to smaller classes; however, the adverse effect of large class size on classroom discussion may have adverse effects on students (Westerlund, 2008). Decreased perceived satisfaction with large class sizes has also been reported in other disciplines (Chapman & Ludlow, 2010; Leufer, 2007). Hence, these perceptions need further exploration to identify the effect on student performance in nursing. As the shortage of nurse educators persists (AACN, 2011), student enrollment may continue to increase and large class sizes may become more prevalent in this discipline. Therefore, it is important that we further investigate the effect of the large class size on student satisfaction and performance to facilitate learning and improve student retention.
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