The Art of Teaching in Small Groups (2)

                    Sally Brown (Educational Development Adviser, University of Northumbria)

 In the second part of her article, Sally Brown suggests ways in which we can make learning more active in seminars, tutorials and other small group contexts.

What goes wrong in small groups? Small  group teaching can provide excellent   opportunities for participants to get to know  each other, come to grips with their subject  and learn actively,  and yet this kind of class is  often seen by students as of less value than  lectures or one-to-one sessions.
       Talking to students, they often express confusion about the tasks involved and  uncertainty about their role, as well as lack of confidence about participating. They criticise tutors for inconsistency  of approach and treatment, for disorganisation and lack of structure, and for hogging the sessions with their own views and opinions.



*goals and structure of the seminar are unclear
*sessions lack preparation by tutor or students
*tutor often talks too much
*lack of sudent participation and involvement
*discussions tend to be a low cognitive level
*questions asked by tutors rarely go beyond eliciting recall
*discussion is unfocussed for much of the time
*frequently one or two students are allowed to dominate the discussion



As far as seminars are concerned, all too often these take the form of one or two ill- prepared students struggling through a pre-written paper, which is followed by desultory discussion which ends with the tutor losing patience and taking over the session as a secondary lecture opportunity.
      In problem classes, students frequently work away individually and silently at problem sheets, until they get stuck, when  they have to vie for the attention of the tutor with every other member of the class until they may reach the point of despair.
     Tutorials are often typified by lack of  focus, generalised discussion leading to chit-chat or trial by intellect, until the student is cowed into submission or revolt.
    I exaggerate of course, but most readers will recognise some of these descriptions.



*asks ambiguous or confusing questions
*asks too many questions at once, without guidance on which elements are most important
*asks a question and then answers it him or her self, using the session as a further opportunity to deliver curriculum material
*asks irrelevant questions and wandes unproductively away  from the set topic or theme
* fails to pace the session, asking a difficult question too early, so students are deterred from answeing for fear of looking foolish
*adopts an inappropriate manner, asking questions in a threatening way
*fails to listen to what students say and ignores their answers
*fails to see the implications of answers and disregards them or rubbishes them
* fails to build on the answers obtained, thus losing the opportunity to channel the direction of the session productively


To engage students actively in small group sessions and avoid the pitfalls suggested in the box, tutors can use a range of techniques that help productive interaction to promote learning. This means moving towards student-centred methods where the focus is on learning, rather than being stuck in the mould of traditional small group teaching.
       Available to us is a repertoire of methods that we can build into a programme of small group activity, interspersed with or replacing the traditional forms of teaching. A balanced programme of different kinds of activities can then be devised which will promote learning to the satisfaction not only of quality assessors but also the students themselves, who are likely to benefit from being stretched.
      These techniques include:


Start by giving the students a few minutes to think about the problem or issue to be discussed. Ask them to write down their thoughts or ideas on a note pad. Keep the task specific. For example, ask them to write down the three most important, or positive, or expensive etc. aspects of an issue. It is often useful to ask them to write on post-its and then post them on, say, a notice board or the wall. Alternatively, ask them to share their ideas with their neighbour before moving into a discussion phase. This will often encourage the quieter students and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to provide feedback.


Where groups are not too large, say around twenty or fewer, go around everyone in the group and ask thern to respond. People often use rounds as icebreakers or as part of the winding up of a session. Try not to make the
round too daunting by giving students guidance on what is expected of them (for example, "I want everyone to give their name and then identify one aspect of the course programme they know nothing about but are looking forward to learning about" or "Let's go round and find out what the most useful aspect of today's session has been for each person". In big rounds, students can be quite nervous, so make it clear that it's OK to pass and if people at the beginning have made your point, that concurrence is sufficient.


Ask students in pairs to take it in turn alternately to speak and to listen, talking without being interrupted for a few minutes on a given topic. They might find this quite difficult at first, but it is an excellent way of getting students to articulate their ideas, and also means that the quieter students are given opportunities to speak and be heard. The art of listening without interrupting (other than with brief prompts to get the speaker back on target if they wander off the topic) is one that many students will need to foster too. This pair work can then feed into other activities.


Give pairs, threes, fours or larger groups small timed tasks which involve them talking to each other, creating a hubbub of noise as they work. Their outcomes can then be shared with the whole group through feedback, on a flip chart sheet poster, on an overhead projector transparency or otherwise as appropriate.


This can be a valuable way of stimulating creative free-thinking and is particularly useful when looking for a solution to a problem or in generating diverse ideas. Start with a question like "How can we..?" or "What do we know about ... ?" and encourage the group to call out ideas as fast as you can write them up (perhaps use two scribes on separate boards if the brainstorm flows well). Make it clear that this is supposed to be an exploratory process, so set ground-rules that:

a large quantity of ideas is desirable, so everyone should be encouraged to input
at whatever level they feel comfortable
quick snappy responses are more valuable at this stage than long, complex, drawn- out sentences
ideas should be noted without comment, either positive or negative - no one
should say "That wouldn't work because.'" or "That's the best idea we've heard yet" while the brainstorm is in progress as this might make people feel  foolish about their contributions
participants should 'piggyback' on each other's ideas if they set off a train of thought
'logic circuits' should be disengaged, allowing for a freewheeling approach.

     The mass of ideas thus generated can then be used as a basis for selection of an action plan, a programme of development or a further problems solving task.


This is the term used to describe activities undertaken by groups of students working to a brief under their own direction. They can be asked to undertake literature searches, debate an issue, explore a piece of text, prepare an argument, design an artefact or many other tasks. To achieve productively, they will need an explicit brief, appropriate resources and clear outcomes.
Specialist accommodation is not always necessary; syndicates can work in groups spread out in a large room, or, where facili- ties permit, go away and use social areas of the campus or designated areas of the learning resource centre. If the task is substantial, the tutor may wish to move from group to group, or may be available on a 'help desk' at a central location. Outcomes may be in the form of assessed work from the group or produced at a plenary as described above.


Start by giving students an individual task of a fairly simple nature such as listing features, noting questions, or identifying problems. Then ask them to work in pairs on a slightly more complex task, such as prioritising issues or suggesting strategies.
Thirdly, ask then to come together in larger groups, fours or sixes for example and undertake a task involving, perhaps, synthesis, assimilation or evaluation. Ask them to draw up guidelines, perhaps, or produce an action plan or to asses the impact of a particular course of action. They can then feed back to the whole group if required.


Ask for a small group of up to half a dozen or so volunteers to sit in the middle of a larger circle comprising the rest of the group. Give them a task to undertake that involves discussion, with the group around the outside acting as observers. Make the task you give the inner circle sufficiently simple in the first instance to give them the confidence to get started. This can be enhanced once students have had practice and become more confident.
       This method can be useful for managing students who are dominating a group, because it gives them permission to be the centre of attention for a period of time. After a suitable interval, you can ask others from the outer circle to replace them, thus giving the less vocal ones an opportunity for undisturbed air time. Fishbowls can also be useful ways of getting representatives from buzz groups to feed back to the whole group.
      Some students will find it difficult to be the focus of all eyes and ears, so it may be necessary to avoid coercing anyone to take centre stage (although gentle prompting can be valuable). A 'tag wrestling' version can also be used, with those in the outer circle who want to join in gently tapping on the shoulder of someone in the middle they want to replace and taking over their chair and chance of talking.
       Alternatively it can be very effective to give the observers in the outer group a specific task to ensure active listening. For example, ask them to determine the three key issues or conclusions identified by the inner group. It is then possible to swap the groups round and ask the new inner group to evaluate the conclusions identified by the first group. Fishbowls can work well with quite large groups too.


Often we want to mix students up in a systematic way so they work in small groups of different compositions. You can use crossovers with large groups of students, but the following example shows how this method would work with twenty seven students. Each student in a self-selected group of three is given a slip of paper with a letter and a number on, for example, the first group would have students Al, B2 and C3, the second group A2, B3 and Cl as in the configuration below:

A2B3CI DSE6F4 G8H917
A3BIC2 D6E4F5 G9H718

After the first task, ask the students to group themselves by letter: AAA, BBB, CCC and so on. After the second task, ask the students to work with people who have the same number as themselves: 111, 222, 333... This will allow you to get each group of nine students to crossover within groups, so they work with different people on each task in a structured way. There is no need for whole group feedback on tasks one and two, because each individual will act as rapporteur on the outcomes of their previous task in the last configuration. As with snowballing or pyramids, you can make the task at each stage slightly more difficult and ask for a product from the final configuration if desired.
      Crossovers are useful in making sure everyone in the group is active and also help to mix students outside their normal friendship, ethnic or gender groups. It takes a little forethought to get the numbers right for the cohort you are working with (for example, you can use initial configurations of four rather than three, so that in stage two they will work as fours rather than triads and if you have one person left over, you can just pair them with one other person and ask them to shadow that person wherever they go. You can use crossovers with 108 people if you use one Greek letter!



I conclude with a series of ideas that can be selectively used to help avoid the pitfalls and problems of small group teaching. These tips have largely been adapted from 500 Tips for Tutors by Phil Pace and Sally Brown.


1 Get to know the names of the learners in your groups. They will regard the tutorial as more important if they feel that they are known to you, and that you will notice if they are not present.

2 Tell them what to expect. Students new to universities may find the whole concept of a seminar or tutorial alien and frightening. Help them understand the difference in purpose between a lecture and a small group session.

3 Give them time to think. Students often require time to get their ideas together. Don't expect an immediate response, but allow them time to write down their ideas for a few moments before expecting them to begin a discussion.

4 Brief learners in advance of the topics to be covered in forthcoming small group sessions. Give them something specific to prepare for each class, and spend some (but not all) of the time letting them share and discuss what they have prepared. Always have something up your sleeve for learners to do or discuss during tutorials, for those occa- sions when none of the learners brings questions or problems.

5 Give learners activities to help them integrate the material in lectures with the rest of their experiences on the course. Help them to understand how to apply theoretical material to practical contexts.

6 Delegate activities.   As the course progresses, brief individuals (or small groups) to prepare for forthcoming seminars, for example to give a 15-rriinute review of a topic, then open it up for discussion (with you as an expert witness only when needed).

7 Agree ground-rules for seminars. These can include things such as punctuality, contribution, preparation, and record- keeping. If, for example, learners take turns preparing a short resume of what was covered in seminars, each member of the group gradually builds up a supplementary set of learning resource materials.

8 Use seminars for appropriate parts of assessed coursework. All kinds of tasks can be undertaken in small group sessions that can count towards a final assessment including assessed presentations, class tasks, work sheets and poster displays.

9 Involve them in assessing themselves and each other. The smaller groups involved in seminars can more easily participate in self-assessment and peer-assessment processes, giving learners the chance to gain a detafled perspective of the sort of assessment criteria which may be involved in later exams.

10 Use small group sessions to build flexibility into the overall course. For example, give learners choices from which to select the exact topics and formats of their forthcoming contributions. It can often help to invite an 'expert witness' from outside the course to contribute to particular seminars that learners themselves have requested - indeed the learners themselves can be given the task of finding such a person.

11 Use other students as proctors. It can be useful to bring in, for example, third-year learners to lead a series of seminars with first-year learners. The more-experienced learners can often explain things in a more understandable way than someone like yourself who has probably 'known them for a long time'. Additionally, explaining things to less-experienced learners is one of the best ways of deepening their own understanding of the topics they're explaining.

12 Experiment with ways of trying to keep everyone involved in seminar sessions. For example, asking students to write questions (or conclusions) on pieces of paper or overhead transparencies can overcome the problem of some learners talking too much while others hardly talk at all.

13 Recognise that some learners may be quite shy. Avoid being too heavy handed in your persuasion to participate in seminars, especially near the beginning of a course when they may be feeling insecure, and when they may take even slight embarrass- ment too seriously.

14 Be sensitive to gender and culture issues. For some students, it is really difficult to challenge the tutor or speak out in the presence of others. Use tact to help students take an active part in whatever way they feel most comfortable, for example, by asking them to write things down sometimes rather than speak aloud.

15 Come quickly to the rescue if particular learners seem seriously uncomfortable as they contribute to a serifinar. Get to know which ones are 'robust' enough to weather any difficulties, and which ones will appreciate your helpful intervention.

16 Get learners talking to each other using non-threatening icebreakers. Build up your own stock of short icebreakers, so that you can regularly start off a seminar session in an informal 'fun' way.

17 Discuss with learners the value they can derive from seminars, and particularly help them to see that the more they contribute to seminars, the more they will learn themselves.

18 Ensure that learners don't undervalue seminars. Don't let them fall into the trap of thinking that because seminars are less- formal than lectures, they are less important. In lectures, explain now and then that 'the important issues here will form the basis of your seminars in the next week or two'.

19 Allow learners to participate in different ways. Vary the activities so that students can make their contributions in a discussion, in presentations, as an individual or as a member of a group.

20 Use seminars as an opportunity to present alternative views. Having used the lecture as an opportunity to describe one particular approach to the topic, use the seminar to help students perceive different perspectives on an issue.

21 Have contingency plans. Where seminars are spread over a week, students who have sessions on Mondays, for example, may have problems in the UK in the summer when there are a number of Bank holidays. Build some flexibility into the system so that the same students don't always suffer if a class is lost.

References and Useful Reading

Gibbs, G. and T.  Habeshaw,  D. Jaques et al . Teaching more students 3: Discussion with more students. Oxford: Oxford  Centre for Staff Development, 1992. One of a series of publications developed as part of the PCFC funded initiative to support teaching of more students.

Race, Phil. and Sally Brown. 500 Tips for Tutors. Kogan Page:  London, 1993.

UCOSDA and Loughborough University. Making the Grade: Achieving High quality Assessment Profiles. Sheffield: 1996. A pack for those preparing for quality assessment developed in association with Nottingham University, Nottingham Trent University, Sheffield University and Bretton Hall College .

Sally Brown is Educational Development Adviser at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, and co-chair of SEDA.

This article first appeared in The New Academic Vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 1997). Reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor, Mr. Ivan Moore.