Class placement affects student performance

Student performance is affected by the class in which students study. This assumption is supported by the findings of Ninja Hienonen’s doctoral thesis. In the thesis, class size and class composition and their effects on learning outcomes were studied.

In the thesis, class placement was studied in terms of class size and class composition. In addition, the performance of students receiving special support was examined in relation to whether they were in a regular or special class. The data were drawn from two large-scale assessment studies on primary and lower secondary education. Student performance was measured using learning to learn tasks covering different domains of thinking. Furthermore, students’ grades and self-reported motivation scales were used.

Students receiving support benefited when other students receiving support were placed in the same class

In the Finnish education system, support is provided at three levels. General and intensified support is offered in regular classes, while students receiving special support face a wider range of options: placement either in a regular class or a special class in a special school.

According to the study, students receiving intensified or special support were placed  on average in smaller classes. However, the size of a class as such had no effect on student performance in cognitive tasks.

“This does not mean that the number of students in class has no effect at all. Instead, it can mean that the composition of the class may play a more important role,” Hienonen says.

Students receiving support placed in regular classes seemed to benefit from having other students receiving support placed  in the same class.

“This entails, however, that the number of students receiving support in the class is such that the necessary support can be provided successfully,” Hienonen points out.

Schools need ways to manage student diversity

When the differences among students receiving special support placed in special or regular classes were explored, no differences in any cognitive tasks were detected. However, students in special classes received higher grades in some core subjects.

“In addition, according to the self-reported learning motivation scales, students in special classes had aspirations to have higher grades, succeed better than their peers, and show their abilities to others,” Hienonen adds.

However, students without special educational needs in classes with students receiving support performed slightly lower than their peers in classes without students receiving support even when the initial performance differences were taken into account.

“This does not mean that students receiving support have a negative effect on other students. What it mean is that schools purposefully assign students into classrooms, aiming to create homogeneous classes. And this means that schools need ways to manage student diversity and respond to initial student differences,” Hienonen sums up.

Information on the effect of class placement on students’ learning needed to support decision-making

“Based on the study, it can be said that the placement of students receiving support affects all students,” says Hienonen.

The thesis offers no straightforward solution to choosing the type of class best suited to students receiving special support.

“What is clear is that the class and its student composition have consequences on learning’, and that information on these effects is needed to support decision-making in schools,” Hienonen concludes.



Ninja Hienonen, MA (Education), will defend her doctoral thesis in the field of special education entitled ‘Does class placement matter? Students with special educational needs in regular and special classes’ on Friday, 25 September 2020 at 12.00.

The public examination will take place in the Unioninkatu banquet room 303, Unioninkatu 33. The public examination can also be followed online on the UniTube website.

Professor Mikko Aro from the University of Jyväskylä will serve as the opponent and Professor Markku Jahnukainen as the custos.

The doctoral thesis will be published in the Studies in Educational Sciences series. The thesis is also available in electronic format through the E-thesis service.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:

Ninja Hienonen

+358 50 318 2195