eight benefits of small classes

what’s one of the tried and true hallmarks of a mounds park academy education? small class sizes. from science to social studies, drama to drawing, classes at mpa are significantly smaller than those at most other minnesota schools. in fact, mpa’s average class is 15 students, compared with the minnesota public school average of 27. what’s more, mpa’s student-teacher ratio, the total number of faculty in the building divided by the total number of students, is 7:1, compared to the state average of 16:1. so why does mpa put such an emphasis on maintaining small class sizes and a lower student-teacher ratio? because small class sizes benefit students in a multitude of ways, large and small. from hands on learning, to teacher autonomy, to research-based long-term success, see the eight benefits of smaller classes at mpa.

"small class sizes enable us to connect deeply with each student. we have time to understand the way they learn, what trips them up, and what best motivates each one."

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mpa average class size

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mn average class size

1. there’s nowhere to hide
we can all envision this scenario: a student is in a math class with 33 students. many of those students are not interested or paying attention. this student sits in the back of the room far from the teacher and white board, keeping a low profile but struggling to stay focused through constant distraction. interruptions, compounded by the chaos going on around the classroom, prevent any significant learning. this student falls further and further behind in math, but because they are not the squeaky wheel, they don’t receive individual attention. this student may never truly master the basic concepts in math nor build a strong foundation for future classes. unfortunately, this is the reality in many schools where 30 or more students in a classroom is routine.

compare that to a classroom of 15 students at mpa, where there’s no bad seat in the house. from the get-go, students are in a vastly different scenario, one where they have no choice but to engage and interact with each other, and with their teacher. because they are all seen, no one is able to distract others. at mpa, students are learning how to learn, and part of that is being known and understood by all of their teachers. students receive help when they ask for it. they are directed and expected to share their own ideas, express their own opinions, and describe their own perspectives. this equates to confidence, deep content knowledge, and a love for learning as they move toward college and life.

founding faculty member and middle school teacher anne atchison knows that small classes allow each student to have a voice and a presence in her classes. “there can be more one-on-one or small group instruction, and feedback and celebrations are more personal and frequent.” and, ms. atchison adds, “students are more accountable since there’s no hiding!”

2. research proves long-term success
at mpa, small classes are valued for many reasons, but the most important is clear: they lead to academic success and higher levels of student achievement. our faculty know this to be true from their experience, but there is also an immense amount of research that confirms it.

a number of high-profile studies concluded that students in small classes obtain higher test scores, are more engaged in school, and demonstrate better behavior. for example, project star (also known as the tennessee study) found that an average student assigned to a smaller class had a reading score nearly eight percent higher than students in the medium-sized classes. the smaller-class students, on average, also achieved nine percent higher math scores. a report from the policy research institute in wisconsin determined that students in smaller classes in elementary grades perform better in a number of academically measurable ways: they record higher test scores, earn better grades, and display superior attendance. in addition, this study found that smaller classes improved students’ growth in “non-cognitive” abilities that are not necessarily noted on tests or report cards, like grit, drive, and confidence, but which are all linked to success in academics and beyond.

small group work 3. teachers are able to differentiate
in large classes, teachers often have to teach to the broad middle of the class. students learning at a more advanced level than this broad middle may find themselves bored and disengaged (especially frustrating for gifted and talented students). those below the middle, who may need some remedial help, are lost in the shuffle. but with smaller class sizes, individualized, differentiated instruction is entirely possible.

for example, fourth grade teachers deedee stacy and yamini kimmerle differentiate their instruction to meet each kid where they are on their academic journey. “small class sizes enable us to connect deeply with each student. we have time to understand the way they learn, what trips them up, and what best motivates each one. our feedback, both verbal and written, is personally tailored to help each student take their own unique next step in the academic journey.” no matter where a student’s academic ability is, just being in a small class means their teacher can tailor their instruction so that students are neither bored nor overwhelmed.

small classes enable teachers to truly personalize the educational experience for students. world language teacher jess blue considers herself to be very fortunate to have 10 students in her french v class. “as i write my vocabulary quiz for them, i find myself reflecting on how well i already know them from years of working together, and how i can tailor the exam to fit their interests. i have the time and freedom to write curriculum and assessments that meet them where they are and engage them more deeply.”

4. experiential course work is the norm
in a small class, students have more opportunity for hands on learning. at mpa, that could mean the 160 minutes of laboratory time per week in an upper school science class, it could be a middle school iterm class on our state’s indigenous cultures that’s complete with two days of dog sledding in northern minnesota, or it might be fourth graders marching through halls for their vocabulary parade, an annual event where students dress up as their favorite word and parade around to different classrooms showing off their knowledge. in short, students do the work rather than just hearing about it. this makes school meaningful, interesting, and engaging.

what’s more, hands on learning provides better opportunities for kinesthetic learners (those who learn best through movement and the sense of touch), who tend to become lost in the shuffle when listening to an instructor just talk about a topic or being asked to spend class time reading from a textbook.

5. classrooms are calmer and quieter
quiet classrooms there’s a tremendous difference between a classroom of 15 and a classroom of 30—ask any teacher. even under the best circumstances, when all students in a classroom are focused, simply having 30 kids in a single space can be overstimulating. add to that equation the distractibility of young learners, the prevalence of learning challenges, and the shorter attention spans in this age of technology, and large classes can descend into turmoil quickly. whether it’s the constant jostling of students at their desks, whispers coming from the back of the classroom, a phone ringing, or even the soft sounds of 30 pages turning, there can be debilitating distractions for even the most focused students. and that’s not insignificant. it can be the difference between understanding a lesson fully and not understanding at all. by contrast, small classes at mpa mean that there are fewer distractions and disruptions, behavior is easily managed, and a quieter, calmer learning environment prevails.

6. students connect better
in small classes, students get to know their classmates and teachers better. this means that students, especially those who are new to mpa, are not just another face in a vast crowd, but capable of quickly developing close knit, long lasting connections with new friends. these social connections lead to enhanced academics as well. students learn from each other’s contributions to classroom discussion and feel more comfortable sharing these perspectives among friends because their opinions are affirmed and acknowledged in class discussion. mpa students know who to go to if they run into difficulty on an assignment, and feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher for a quick question, a useful skill as they prepare for college. they also benefit from peers commenting on and reviewing their essays and providing feedback for presentations.

as a result, the mpa community feels like a family. in fact, in a yearly tradition in which the graduating class gives advice on how the school can improve its student experience, students speak of their time at mpa using those exact words. nearly every senior, some of whom have been here for many years and some of whom are newer, comment on the remarkable sense of community at mpa, one that is welcoming, inclusive, and has a distinct family feel. that’s small class sizes in action.

what’s more, at mpa, our small classes help us to hold steadfast to our whole-child pedagogy. we know that the social, emotional, physical, and mental health of the student has a direct impact on their capacity to learn, and therefore small classes are an essential part of the whole-child environment. spanish teacher maría josé johnson believes that in schools with larger classes, teacher and students coexist without making deep connections. in those cases, the classroom time turns into mere lecture. “when i make connections and show students that i care about them, who they are and their needs and interests, the teaching-learning process becomes meaningful.”

"when i make connections and show students that i care about them, who they are and their needs and interests, the teaching-learning process becomes meaningful."

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mpa student teacher ratio

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mn student teacher ratio

7. students receive more feedback
it’s no secret that smaller classes mean more detailed feedback from instructors, which in turn leads to more academically engaged kids. faculty at mpa spend significant time analyzing their students’ work and providing meaningful feedback to improve analytical skills. this is especially true for humanities classes, where teachers review and provide comments on multiple drafts before a final draft is turned in, and in mathematics, where teachers like dan ethier (middle school honors math) write a comment on every challenge problem that a student answers incorrectly with advice on where they went wrong.

however, in schools with overcrowding and large classes, teachers are overworked and not always providing substantial feedback on assignments. they may be burned out from classroom management, and don’t always grade assignments in great detail or provide additional feedback. that’s not to say they aren’t dedicated, but many simply have too many students under their purview.

contrast that with mpa, where teachers in our smaller class sizes get to know each student as an individual, partner with them to augment their strengths, and recognize their opportunities for growth. teachers also get to know a class right away and can modify their lessons and teaching style according to the unique personalities of each one. this allows classes to move quickly from one topic to the next, especially important in fast paced classes like honors algebra 2/3, a course which takes advantage of mpa’s small class sizes to combine two years’ worth of material into one.

our student to teacher ratio of 7:1 helps us honor the unique learner inside each student. middle school director dr. jenn milam shared that small class sizes allow teachers “to know kids social patterns, emotional needs, academic strengths and weaknesses, and the joys of their heart in a way that helps us connect with them in a more meaningful way.” indeed, feedback and involvement make a make a big difference.

8. teachers have more autonomy
fewer students in a class, in conjunction with the flexibility that comes with teaching at an independent school, means that faculty can incorporate dynamic lessons with real-world relevance to engage all students, especially those who are hungry for more challenge and rigor. with mpa’s emphasis on collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and deep understanding rather than rote memorization, teachers encourage and empower students to dive deep into the subject matter at hand, to answer the “why.”

kindergarten teacher kristine peterson, who has been at mpa for more than 30 years, frequently talks about why she’s stayed for her entire career. “my dad always encouraged me to follow in his footsteps and become a public school teacher, but i have always wanted to be a more unique kind of teacher, and i knew mpa was place for that.”

upper school social studies teacher summer mccall added, “with a class of 35+ students at my previous school, i felt like i was failing my students daily because i didn’t have time to grade, plan, or get to know them. here, at mpa, i feel like i have time for my students, my grading, and myself. it has completely changed my life.”