Does a class placement matter? Students with special educational needs in regular or special classes

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Faced with a diverse student population, schools assign student into classes of different size and composition. These placement effects can have conse-quences on learning and teaching and they are often referred to as composi-tional effects. Consequently, this study treated students in clusters (classes in schools) with a hypothesis that students can expected to have different levels of performance depending on the class they are assigned into. The focus was mainly on students with special educational needs (SEN), and on the question of how they are affected by the class placement.

The aim of the present study was to discern the class-level effects, spe-cifically, class size and the proportion of students with SEN in regular clas-ses, and to explore the effect of the placement by comparing regular and special classes. Data were drawn from two longitudinal large-scale learning to learn assessment studies representing both primary (N = 896) and lower secondary education (N = 5368). Data were analyzed with multilevel regres-sion models. Furthermore, quasi-experimental design was created using propensity score matching technique.

The results of this study confirmed that students with SEN were placed on average in smaller classes, however, the size of a class as such had no effect on their performance in cognitive tasks. Furthermore, the average per-formance level in regular classes with students with SEN was lower than in classes without students with SEN, and the effect remained significant even after the initial differences were controlled for. Students with SEN seemed to benefit from the other students with SEN placed in the same classroom. In addition, the results suggested a tendency to create more homogeneous classrooms as less-achieving students without SEN were placed together with students with SEN.

When the differences among students with SEN placed in two distinct educational settings, special and regular classes were explored, no differ-ences in any cognitive tasks were detected. However, students in special classes received higher grades in some core subjects, and that calls for more research on grading practices in different classroom contexts. The findings also revealed differences in learning motivation across the two settings.

The purposeful sorting of not only students with SEN but of all students into classrooms was confirmed with this study. The results also implied a hidden tracking system within schools. It is evident that the student assign-ment into classrooms is far from neutral act, and that there can be some unintentional consequences. The criteria that are used in student assignment practices should be discussed in an explicit manner and the schools and administrators should be aware of the possible consequences of different placement decisions.
Original languageEnglish
  • Jahnukainen, Markku, Supervisor
  • Hotulainen, Risto, Supervisor
  • Vainikainen, Mari-Pauliina, Supervisor
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-951-51-6391-2
Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-6392-9
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sep 2020
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Fields of Science

  • 516 Educational sciences

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