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Small Trumps Large When Training Online

This is part of a series of posts investigating the 6 Trumps for Live Virtual Classes which we introduced in our post When Everything Is Suddenly Virtual.

We suggest that Small Trumps Large. What does this mean? For example, when it comes to class size, our thinking is that smaller groups are better than large for an optimal learning experience. But is this intuition or is there empirical evidence to support this?

Let's look at the research and see what it says about the class size in a live virtual environment.

How Big Should Your Live Virtual Class Be?

We have seen some grand claims that virtual training opens an opportunity to have very large classes. It's an intoxicating thought. Online conferencing tools such as Zoom support many attendees, so why shouldn't you? What does the research tell us?

As you can imagine, the experts don't all agree. What I have read is that smaller is usually better. Just because a system allows 100 attendees, should you? To quote my fellow PST Simon Reindl, “Sure, you can run with scissors, but should you?”

What Does the Research Say?

The research splits several ways. One aspect is that the cognitive load on the trainer increases as the class sizes increases (more on that in Pairing trumps solo). Another is how can you as a trainer be sure that what you have taught has landed with your learners?

That last question feels like intuition – we're on a slippery slope there.

So, let's return to the research. What quite a few agree on is that if you want to engage learners, then class sizes should be no more than 12-20 students (Boettcher, 1999; LaBorie & Stone, 2015; Politis & Politis, 2016). In fact, some go even further and suggest that this range could even be 12-15 students (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Haynie, 2014; Taft, Kesten & El-Banna, 2019) as a maximum.

Pedagogical Intent

Another powerful aspect of this research is pedagogical intent. Simply put, the depth and complexity of the course matter should influence your choice on class size. As one study put it:

Findings reflect that large classes (≥ 40 students) are effective for foundational and factual knowledge acquisition requiring less individualized faculty–student interaction. Small classes (≤ 15 students) are indicated for courses intending to develop higher order thinking, mastery of complex knowledge, and student skill development. Pedagogical intent should dictate class size.

Taft, S., Kesten, K. & El-Banna, M. (2019)

What does this mean? If all you need to do is inform participants of facts (aka “Broadcast”) then go large. If you need people to learn something complex, go small. Research indicates that this is also the case for in-person training, but that's for another day.


Class Size

Our suggestion for Live Virtual Classes:
To engage participants and optimise for learning, keep your class size to 12 students or fewer.

The content we train is firmly in the area of complex knowledge, so for this reason, we will limit the number of attendees to our online courses to 12. We feel strongly that the science points us towards small class sizes and 12 is a reasonable maximum number to ensure good engagement and learning.

Suggestions for Success

We have a few ideas you can try for class management of groups in a Live Virtual Class.

  1. Breakout Rooms
    Many online communication platforms have something that will serve as a breakout room. Use them to provide opportunities for small group collaboration. We have found it useful to provide simple clear instructions and nominate a facilitator for each breakout room.
  2. Meeting Cards
    The amazing Lisette Sutherland published some Collaboration Supercards on her Collaboration Superpowers website. Visual indicators like this are great. To complement these we're working on our own set specifically for training.
  3. Nominate Participants
    When asking a question to the group, invite a specific participant by name to kick off the group's answers.
  4. “Pass the Mic”
    During activities like a Shout Out or a Conversation Café, get participants to nominate the next person to go.


Artz, J. (2011). Online courses and optimal class size: A complex formula. Online Submission. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED529663.pdf

Benshoff, J.M. & Gibbons, M.M. (2011). Bringing Life to e-Learning: Incorporating a Synchronous Approach to Online Teaching in Counselor Education. The Professional Counselor 1(1). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1063069.pdf.

Boettcher, J.V. (1999). Cyber course size: Pedagogy and politics. Syllabus, 12 (8), 42-44. Rerieved from http://designingforlearning.info/writing/how-many-students-are-just-right-in-a-web-course/

Haynie, D. (2014). Experts Say Class Size Can Matter for Online Students. US News. Rerieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/09/26/experts-say-class-size-can-matter-for-online-students.

LaBorie, K. & Stone, T. (2015). Interact and Engage!

McDaniels, M., Pfund, C. & Barnicle, K. (2016). Creating Dynamic Learning Communities in Synchronous Online Courses: One Approach From the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). Online Learning 20(1). Retrieved from https://nrmnet.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/synchronous-online-courses-manuscript-Online-Learning.pdf.

Morrison, D. (2015). Does Class Size Matter in Online Courses? Three Perspectives: The Economist, Instructor & Student. Retrieved from https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/does-class-size-matter-in-online-courses-three-perspectives/.

Politis, J.D. & Politis, D.J. (2016). The Relationship Between an Online Synchronous Learning Environment and Knowledge Acquisition Skills and Traits: The Blackboard Collaborate Experience. Computer Science 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ejel.org/issue/download.html?idArticle=507&usg=AOvVaw123tIoXrHaNrFyqHZ9I-u8.

Taft, S., Kesten, K. & El-Banna, M. (2019). One Size Does Not Fit All: Toward an Evidence-Based Framework for Determining Online Course Enrollment Sizes in Higher Education. Online Learning 23(3). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1228823.pdf.

2 thoughts on “Small Trumps Large When Training Online”

  1. Pingback: When Everything Is Suddenly Virtual - Actineo Consulting LLP

  2. Pingback: Is Live Virtual Training Helping Learners? - Actineo Consulting LLP

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