Small Group Teaching
Whether teaching in a seminar, tutorial or a problem-based class, or setting students an ongoing group project over a period of several weeks, the small group teaching environment provides you with the opportunity to receive and give immediate feedback. It allows more hands-on tasks to support the academic learning experience, and gives you the chance to motivate and build student confidence. Students benefit from the small group environment by a much-valued contact with you on a more individual scale within the broader context of the academic community.
Seminars or tutorial sessions allow students to meet with small groups of peers or focus on the practical application of their studies in problem-based classes and project work. This environment allows you to tailor your teaching based on the immediate reactions of your students. You can more readily make sure you understand specific student needs and requirements.
Small group teaching allows the independent learning experience to come to the forefront of the class. It also helps students build communication skills through group presentations, contributions in class and other assignments.
As a facilitator of small groups, you need to demonstrate several skills to create and maintain a “safe” environment which promotes active participation and interaction:
- positive (feedback)
- objective and neutral
- able to listen and communicate
- willing to devolve control
While the large group lecture format is a means to convey lots of information and establish a common ground for learning, small group dynamics may allow you to:
- be less directive (lecture less and let students "do" more)
- be more self-disclosing (not necessarily personal but you could, for example, talk about your research experience)
- be aware of students so that you can "gauge" learning
- be approachable/open and invite dialogue
Group management and facilitation
Groups invariably have challenges of different skills and abilities, domestic and international students. Explaining the purpose, benefits and expectations of any group activity or project is important. In any group activity, it may help to put yourself in the "role" of one of your students in a group:
- How do you feel?
- What do you want from the task?
- What do you want from your tutor?
- What do you want from your peers?
Confidently setting up group activities with clear learning outcomes can help groups work together more effectively:
- Decide how groups will be formed, e.g. self-selection; identified by you
- Describe rationales for group division
- If doing an in-class group activity, explain a strategy for timings and getting attention during group work, e.g. 20 minutes to discuss with 10 minutes to present findings while you walk around the room to answer questions
- Decide how you will divide students up, e.g. large vs small group/prior knowledge, experience, interest in particular topics
Worth considering: It is important to address the ground rules for participation and expectations. At a minimum, this might include a clear indication that all contributions are considered valuable and no one should deride any fellow students’ efforts. Help your students to feel “safe” in order to participate in small groups.
Assessed group work can cause a particular challenge in homogenous or diverse groups alike. Clear explanation of the benefits of group work, e.g. learning cooperation skills, bringing in a range of skills to a project, ability to cover the topic in more depth, and offering students tools to work together can support a more positive experience.
Giving information on how you evaluate the task or project with a clear indication of how you will monitor progress can also help students feel more at ease.
Hints and tips
- Promote active participation/interaction by generating a climate of trust where all students are encouraged to participate. If students are puzzled, restate, rephrase, clarify or elaborate, or break a question up into smaller chunks.
- Have strategies to cope with group dynamics, such as one student dominating the discussion or non-participation of others. Do not fear silence. Allow some “wait time” while students think.
- Consider the impact of group size, group members and the physical environment and adjust accordingly, e.g. make sure students have eye contact with each other, bear in mind the effect of where you as a teacher sit in the group.
- Observe, listen and interpret verbal and non-verbal cues while you are teaching. If you see students’ interest wane, or there is an obvious dip or disruption to the learning environment, try to switch focus. Try introducing an activity or think about ways to change pace or delivery.
- Small groups may make it easier to spot students in difficulty. Your role is not necessarily to solve problems, but to know where to direct students.
Example: Responding to student feedback: From full-cohort lectures to MOLE content and small group tutorials
Dr Sarah Barnes, School of Health and Related Research
The School of Health and Related Research responded to student feedback regarding the delivery of the HAR6030 Research Methods module to provide students with more practical workshop style activities. With the introduction of a Learning Technologist, the delivery of this module was changed from full cohort lecture-style to small discussion tutorials which students attended having already accessed information about each topic and interacted online.
Example: Group work in the fast lane
Students from the Department of Mechanical Engineering learn firsthand about group work and how to cope with pressure by participating in “Formula Student.” This annual engineering competition is held in the UK and run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Student teams design, build, test and race a small-scale Formula style racing car, allowing them to use their engineering skills and build important social skills in a team environment.
The Department of Mechanical Engineering provided some funding for infrastructure and a professional workshop has been developed to support the students.
Students are very enthusiastic about Formula Student, which continually proves to be good for departmental morale. It also generates interest and acts as a talking point on UCAS days and open days. In addition to learning about group work, student team members enhance their employability skills as the project applies not only engineering concepts but business strategies. Students also improve communication skills as part of their role is to secure sponsorship or practical support.
- Group activities can be used to address other challenges, e.g. the integration of domestic and internationals students. Next session the Department will consciously mix nationalities across Level 1 tutor groups to help with integration and will look at composition of groups for group work.
- Consider options for collaboration with other departments or faculties, e.g. this project include areas outwith engineering, including finance and management.
A short video detailing TUOS’ Formula Student Team
Student feedback on using technology in group assignments:
"The difficulty with a group assignment is always that a few people will chip in chunks of research, and then invariably one person sits there the night before and bores themselves to death cramming it all into PowerPoint. At least with this approach we spent the evening working through it together, so we all contributed equally."
Example: Electronic reporting of tutorial attendance
Dr Brian Taylor, Department of Chemistry
The Department of Chemistry has implemented a web-based database system for reporting attendance at tutorials and lectures. The system automatically emails students who miss a tutorial and also the level director when students have missed three tutorials. The system also allows the electronic submission of tutor reports (for all four levels) at the end of each semester.
Making group-work work: practical examples of engaging students in technology-based collaborative learning (Click 9a to download)
Presentation by Danny Monaghan (CiCS) and Dr Christopher Stokes (Senate Award Fellow, Dentistry) at the Learning and Teaching Conference, 2012
Presentation by Dr Rachel Horn (Senate Award Fellow, Civil and Structural Engineering) at the Learning and Teaching Conference, 2011.
Making small-group teaching work. Race, P. (2006). The Lecturer's Toolkit: 3rd Edition London: Routledge. Web site: http://phil-race.co.uk/downloads/
Approaches to small group teaching. Gunn, V. (2007). University of Glasgow. www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_12157_en.pdf
Teaching Methods: Small Group Teaching
The University of Nottingham offers a series of video interviews with academic staff on different teaching issues, including teaching small groups. Go to Teaching Methods: Small Group Teaching
The Centre for the Study of Higher Education explores some of the benefits and challenges of group work, including group formation, group processes and procedures and assessment.
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