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Group Dynamics

What is the Ideal Group Size
in Outdoor Education?

James Neill
Last updated:
01 May 2004

Theory - 6 to 16 is roughly ideal

A well-cited theory by Walsh and Golins (1976) includes the claim that a group size of 10 is ideal for Outward Bound programs - not too large so that individuals get lost, not so small that a group lacks dynamic diversity.

 

Its more practical to consider an optimal range - say 6 to 16.  Besides practicalities (e.g., enrolments and resources), the group size may be adjusted according to age, maturity, experience, program goals, experience of instructor, program difficulty, etc. 

 

It is important to realize that group dynamics take place regardless of group size and, ultimately, it is the dynamics rather than the actual number in a group which is most likely to effect psycho-social outcomes.  Groups with sizes between about 6 and 16 are likely to experience similar processes and outcomes.  This is also a common size for other intense group settings, e.g., group therapy.

Research - Group size doesn't matter - its the individual's quality of experience matters

From research on approximately 3000 participants in Outward Bound and related programs in Australia, no consistent effects of group size on life effectiveness outcomes were identified.  Group sizes in the study ranged between 5 and 26. 

This is not to say group size and staff:student ratio doesn't matter, but at least in this large study, no identifiable relationship between group size and personal development outcomes was evident.  More powerful factors appeared to be the type of participant and type of program (Neill, in progress).

The equivocal impact of group size shouldn't seem that surprising -- after all, a brilliant person can facilitate change in many people, while millions of people can fail to change one person - what ultimately matters is the nature of experience/process - and this may or may not be related to group size or staff:student ratio.

Mainstream schooling research does tend to have found advantages in academic learning for small class sizes and small staff:student ratios.

In outdoor education, group sizes have gradually lowered less out of educational rationale or evidence, and more due to efforts to reduce environmental impact and in response to increasingly conservative safety and legal liability constraints.