Students at traditional colleges often factor the average class size of a school into their decision about which institution to attend, but what about online students? Class size matters among online college degree programs, according to U.S. News & World Report – especially when it comes to the quality of students’ interactions with their instructors and their classmates.

The Range of Online Class Sizes

Online class sizes range from small to huge. Some schools limit online course enrollment to 15 or 20 students, similar to the enrollment caps in a small face-to-face course. At the other end of the spectrum are MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, where enrollment is pretty much unlimited and it’s not unusual for thousands of people across the country, or even the world, to be taking a single class. “Average class size ranged from one to 150” at the various online programs studied, according to U.S. News & World Report, which means that online courses are truly tiny at some colleges, while at others the average is the size of a large lecture hall. To put that in perspective, average class size among traditional, on-campus college courses is more along the lines of 25 to 30.

Choosing the Best Online Class Size

Online college students need to be somewhat independent learners. However, being part of a class of hundreds means that students must get by with even less support from an overburdened instructor. While a dedicated professor with the right knowledge and support can handle the challenge of providing an engaging education for an online class of 25 to 30, it’s often hard for a professor to help that many individual students when there are no face-to-face interactions.

In even bigger online courses, students have little chance of receiving the personal communication and feedback they may need to avoid falling behind. Not only do students in large online courses often lack support from their instructors, but they may find it difficult to have meaningful online discussions with hundreds or thousands of their peers.

Students should seek out online schools where class sizes are in the 15 to 20 student range, according to U.S. News & World Report. In fact, experts list “What is the typical class size?” as one of the top five questions prospective online students should ask before signing up for a program or a course.

How much the size of an online college course matters will vary from student to student. Some students who are naturally independent learners and who have experience taking online college courses may feel comfortable in a class of 100. However, students who are new to online classes, new to college in general or going to back school for the first time in years may need more support than they will get in a large class. Being realistic about how much support and interaction you need can help you choose an online college with the right course size for you.