Teaching small groups

Students consistently report that class time in small groups is their preferred and most productive learning environment- it's clear that this should be the case, since small classes offer:

  • the opportunity to 'personalise' learning by being able to interact and 'think with' a group of other learners, hopefully with people one learns to like
  • the opportunity to test ideas and opinions in a challenging but 'safe' setting.

Small group teaching is generally in the form of a tutorial supporting the 'primary' delivery mode of the lecture. Unfortunately, in attempts to reduce teaching costs, tutorials are increasingly being replaced by lectures. This makes tutorial time even more critical for our students' effective learning. 'Small' classes used to be those with 12-20 students; now a tutorial can often be as large as 30, but even with increased numbers, the first 'lesson' for you as a teacher is to learn the students' names - use sticky labels for the first couple of weeks if you don't have a great memory! But before that, you should introduce yourself: write your name on the board, wear a name badge if you have one, and explain 'by what authority' you are teaching this unit- your research and discipline background or your professional experience, where else you've taught. Share a little of your personal life if you're comfortable with that, so they know they're working with a 'real person'.

The third 'lesson' is to prepare well for small class teaching: you're not 'reading' lecture notes (or more likely, speaking to PowerPoint slides) as you might in a large 'lecture' class, so you don't have a 'script' to work from. You need to know your materials well, to be able to think on your feet and answer the inevitable 'curly questions' that quickly reveal whether you 'know your stuff'. Your preparation should include consideration of the timing for each sequence of the class -a single 'running sheet' can keep you -and the class- on track, and ensure students leave the class knowing that they've actually learned something. And remember the old adage for structuring your class time- 'at the beginning, tell them what they're going to learn in the class, then conduct the class, then at the end, remind them of what they've learned'.

Ensure at the first class, that you do an ice-breaker, or 'get to know you' exercise, so by the end of the class, they know something about the people they'll share this class with - know their names and a little about them. This is important for all students but especially with our international students. You'll also 'set the tone' of the class as warm, friendly and a 'safe place' to ask questions, explore ideas, think aloud.

In this first class too, you should set out your learning and teaching approach, how you plan to work with them- how they should prepare for each class, whether you're strict about deadlines for work, how much you'll use the website, what they'll learn from fieldtrips etc.

And you should outline your expectations of them as students. (You can do this by describing your 'perfect student': 'My perfect student would .. .', or by a 'reverse brainstorm' exercise with students themselves: get them, in groups of three, to write down all the things they could do to 'wreck' the class, like arriving late, not reading the set reading etc.', and then read these out and turn each one into a positive expectation'. Another way of doing this is to ask them to write and then discuss what, in their opinion, are the characteristics of 'a good teacher' and 'a good student'.

Also outline what they can expect from you in terms of consultation hours, feedback and turnaround times for marking, response times to email. You might want to say at the outset that you don't respond to text messages from students, for example, nor do you give out a mobile number.

The next activity in a first class is to work through the Unit Outline, drawing attention to assessment items, dates, and other important items, especially the learning outcomes, making sure you mention the Graduate Attributes they'll learn in this unit. To make sure they understand all this (!), allow time for any questions, or better still, do a 'pair, share' exercise: in pairs, ask each other whether there was anything they didn't understand in the Outline, see if the other person can explain it. If they can't, then they can ask the question of the teacher.

The nature of small group teaching will depend on the discipline, whether or not you are a tutor working under direction of a Lecturer-in-Charge (LIC), and if you are, whether the LIC provides you with detailed 'lute sheets' or simply lets you devise your class work.

In disciplines such as exercise science, small classes may involve the really practical aspects, such as actually practising particular exercises, or working on examination of anatomical models. In mathematics, small group teaching may involve the teacher working through a maths problem, 'modelling' the way an expert mathematician thinks thorough a problem, then getting students to work through a similar problem alone, with the teacher walking around, checking by asking each student if there's a sticking point, or pointing out an error. In humanities type subjects, the class approach may consist of a series of discussion questions students respond to, the purpose being to demonstrate that they've prepared (by reading an article), they have thought about the topic and formed an informed opinion, and that they can articulate those thoughts in an interesting mannersuch classes almost invariably allow students to practise the Generic Attributes, particularly those of critical thinking and communicating.

An LIC with many tutors will usually prepare tutorial sheets to direct the 'content' of tutorials, so that there is a uniform approach. lt is particularly important that you follow any tutorial sheets, since one constant complaint from ACU students is that different tutors have varying standards and mark 'harder' or 'softer' than others. If you disagree with the directions you're getting from the LIC, speak with him or her about your concerns, and try to persuade him/her to change the approach; don't just ignore the directions and do your own thing -or the students will have a legitimate reason to make appeals.

If you are LIC, or can devise your own teaching approach, you should consider the following, to ensure you engage students in their learning.

  • Allow time in each class for student discussion, in pairs or small groups, with brief reports back to the whole class.
  • Make the discussion topics interesting and relevant!
  • Allow time in each class for a short writing exercise - a paragraph that summarises some reading they've done, or in their own words, explains a concept they should have learned. This is useful practice for them, and also lets you know whether they are learning. But do ensure you give feedback to the whole class in the next class -tell them it's feedback, and generalise 'most of you seem to understand the theory of evolution, but one or two seem to think it stopped in the 19th century. Let's consider some current examples .... '
  • Occasionally, stretch them by asking them to draw a concept map or a drawing of the ideas they've learned in the unit, and then explain it to each other.
  • If they write a paragraph, get them to 'pair and share' and comment on each other's work, and explain their comments to each other. (They'll learn about their own standards as well as those of fellow students.)
  • Above all, make sure their 'time on task' is resulting in productive learning by keeping them active on learning tasks.
  • You will avoid the dreadful silences that come if you ask a question they haven't expected, if you give them the questions in advance, and have laid out your expectations about preparing for class. If you get no answer to a question, wait for at least 10 seconds before you re-phrase the question. If that doesn't work, try getting them to write a response, or discussing what they do know in a pair or small group.
  • If you have international students in your class, and they are unused to Western university methods, have all students pair or form a group of three to discuss your question, and then report back on the 'group answer'. This avoids placing the spotlight on shy students or students unused to public speaking, especially in a second language. And mix up the groups -don't let them stay in friendship groups!
  • Explain at the beginning of semester that if they are tempted to start skipping classes, there is a strong correlation between class attendance and achieving a pass in a subject- every piece of research supports this cause and effect relationship, so they need to keep coming and doing the work.