Small Group Teaching (for those who are new to it)

Published 11/03/2020

“Small group teaching cultivates creativity, passion and enthusiasm. It should hopefully expose students to current debates and offer an opportunity to develop their own academic identity. Ideally it nurtures participation and an authentic engagement with the group.

Mills & Alexander (2013)

What do I need to know?

What is small group teaching?

Small group teaching refers to teaching contexts such as seminars and tutorials and is often defined in terms of student numbers. Mills and Alexander (2013) define it more helpfully as any teaching interaction where dialogue and collaboration are the principal mechanisms of learning. In this way, the approaches of small group teaching can be effectively applied to large groups to encourage active engagement and stronger student-staff relationships.

Why is small group teaching important?

The key strength of small group teaching is its capacity for active student engagement. You can also be more responsive to your students’ needs and help them explore the discipline in more depth and develop vital skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. As Leask and Carroll (2011) observe small groups help students transition into university teaching, develop the necessary skills and provide a good opportunity for cross cultural interaction that provides a richer, inclusive learning experience.

If lectures present maps of a subject in History, small group teaching is about exploring the terrain in detail, from looking underneath rocks to shining lights into the shadows. All the while, we question and challenge accepted truths and reveal unfamiliar and often unheard narratives.

Dr Sam Hitchmough, Senior Lecturer, Department of History, University of Bristol

What do I need to be thinking about?

The room layout

How can you make sure that the layout of your teaching room best suits what you want your students to do in your session?

In this video we explore how the classroom setup affects the quality of interactions with students and how you can respond to the challenges and opportunities different setups might present

The group dynamic

Group dynamics can be affected by several factors. Ask yourself questions about how the group interacts, whether everyone is involved, the balance between you speaking and them, and if the students understand what is expected of them? Your responses to these questions should shape how you develop your planning and interactions for your group. Find out more in Jacques (2004) ‘Small Group Teaching’, where you will also find a list of reflective questions

How students interact with one another may be as much related to their social, cultural or economic backgrounds as it is with their academic abilities or individual personalities and dispositions.

mills & alexander (2013)

We don’t have much time in Study Skills workshops to get a group dynamic going because each group is different, so we get them working together straight away, perhaps in pairs for the first activity, then as a table for the next. We keep the emphasis on them discussing, exploring and solving, rather than the tutor talking.

Simon Gamble, Head of Study Skills, University of Bristol

How do I plan effective sessions?

Constructive alignment

Students’ learning is constructed though the alignment of intended learning outcomes (ILOs) with teaching and learning activities, and assessment methods. ‘The intended learning outcomes are central to the whole system. Get them right and the decisions as to how they are to be taught and how they may be assessed follow.’ (Biggs & Tann, 2011). You should write ILOs using active verbs. This makes it easier to select appropriate teaching activities that will help students do the things you want them to be able to do, and easier for you to gauge if they can do them. Bloom’s taxonomy, see below, helps us to think about how student learning can be expressed using active verbs. 

Constructive Alignment, Biggs and Tang (2011)

Bloom’s Taxonomy

The cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (1956)

Bloom’s Taxonomy helps you think about the levels of complexity at which students learn. Student learning needs to build up from lower order thinking to higher order thinking. For example, a student must comprehend a concept before they can apply it and then analyse it. A student must be able to analyse a concept before they can evaluate it. Tools such as this verb wheel presents active verbs you can use to write ILOs at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy and align them to appropriate teaching activities and assessment methods. 

The Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework

The University of Bristol’s curriculum framework embodies the distinctive education we offer our students, and our aspirations for the future of education at Bristol. At its heart is the idea of making a difference, which encompasses the idea that a good university education should challenge and change the way we think and act. You should consider how the sessions you plan align with the ‘innovative and inspiring’ domain of the framework, “We will challenge routine and traditional approaches to ‘covering content’ with more reflective, interactive and active approaches to teaching and learning.”

Click on the link to find out more about the Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework:

How do I engage my students?

Active learning

Duron et al (2006) argue that students don’t really understand the content they encounter in lectures and reading “until they actively do something with it and reflect on the meaning of what they are doing.” In this context learning is “something that the student does, rather than something that is done to the student.” Ramsden (1992). Active learning is encouraged in many ways, such as discussions, structured tasks, peer marking, group work etc. But it’s not just about keeping students busy during your sessions, teaching activities must build towards learning outcomes. When developing an activity think about how you will consolidate, and gauge what has been learnt, and explore any misunderstandings that arise.

In this 5 minute video Janet Rankin of MIT talks about here experience of using an active learning approach

Effective questioning

Duron et al (2006) go on to cite Clason & Bonk’s assertion that teacher questioning has the most significant impact on student learning as the level of a teacher’s questions correlates to the level of a student’s thinking. Plan key questions so that they can provide structure and direction for your session, and avoid vagueness in the phrasing of your questions. Use Bloom’s taxonomy to help you ask questions at appropriate levels of complexity. If a student is unable to respond to a high order question you can use questions from the lower order to give them a base from which they can build up to higher order thinking. Try to spread the questions around the class so that everyone’s included but make sure you allow time for students to think about their answers.

The best small group teaching I’ve had is when the task you’re set has relevance to the world outside of Uni. It helps to put a subject into context, which means you get a much better understanding of what you’ve been taught. It also makes it a lot more interesting!

Toby Roberts, BILT student fellow

References and further reading

For more on small group teaching:

Brown, G. & Atkins, M. (1988) Effective Teaching in Higher Education, London: Routledge, 50 – 88

Duron, R., Limbach, B., & Waugh, W. (2006). Critical thinking framework for any discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 160-¬166.

Exley, K. and Dennick, R. (2004) Small group teaching: tutorials, seminars and beyond. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer

Mill, D. & Alexander, P (2013) Small group teaching: a toolkit for Learning. HEA

Ramsden , P (1991) Learning to teaching in higher education, London: Routledge.

Cultural inclusivity:

Leask, B., & Carroll, J. (2011). Moving beyond ‘wishing and hoping’: internationalisation and student experiences of inclusion and engagement. Higher education research & development, 30(5), 647–659.

Applying small group teaching to larger groups:

Lynch, R.P & Pappas, E. (2017) A Model for Teaching Large Classes: Facilitating a “Small Class Feel”. International Journal of Higher Education, 6 (2), 199 – 212

Group Dynamic:

Jaques, D. (2004) Small Group Teaching, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, UK.

Active Learning:

Bonwell, C.; Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C

Prince, M. (2004), Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93: 223-231

What other BILT resources might be helpful?

Group work – An online toolkit to help you think about how you can get the most out of group work.

What makes a good teacher – Rose Murray, Jonas Langner and Aydin Nassehi give their answer to ‘What makes a good teacher?’.

BILT podcast, what do we actually mean by blended learning – In this episode we discuss the origins of the term ‘blended learning’ and whether we should be using it, it’s applications, and how we might be using it in the future

Problem-based learning(PBL) – A blog post outlining PBL and the benefits it can bring.