Teaching strategies: Small group teaching

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

Last week we examined ways of teaching large groups of students in an attempt to bring the much-maligned lecture back into favour.

We said that the lecture is a cost-effective means of teaching large groups of students with fewer staff. It’s a good use of precious learning space, too.

We also concluded that the lecture gives whole cohorts a shared experience so that each student is made to feel a part of the group and knows exactly what is expected of them. Lectures give students a sense of “belonging”, we said; and can make studying in large groups a positive experience so that students feel valued and cared for.

What’s more, lectures can help students to see and appreciate the bigger picture which, in turn, can provide both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – gifting students the want as well as the need to learn.

Lectures can teach the art of attention and provide students with their first crucial step towards developing a capacity for critical-thinking because a good lecture offers not a simple recitation of facts, but a careful construction of an argument.

We said that lectures are also an exercise in mindfulness and articulate the emotional energy of intellectual endeavour because students must be attentive – active not passive – if they are to follow the lecturer’s argument and act on its central premise in their own work.

The act of note-making (rather than note-taking) is also an art form worth learning, and lectures provide plentiful opportunities for this.

But what about teaching small groups? How can we make a success of classes with relatively small numbers of students in them, such as intervention groups and small group or one-to-one tuition and mentoring sessions?

Scaling down

The advantages of small group teaching are perhaps obvious. For example, when teaching to small groups, we increase the opportunities for students to ask us specific, detailed questions and are afforded more time to answer these questions.

Small group teaching also provides more opportunities for students to deepen their learning by verbalising – articulating orally and not just in writing – their learning, explaining things to the teacher as well as each other. This process of thinking aloud helps students to make sense of difficult concepts and new knowledge.

Small group teaching provides more opportunities for detailed discussions about what students are learning as well as what they need to learn next. It provides plentiful opportunities for the teacher to clarify with students exactly what they should be doing and the level at which they should be achieving.

Small group teaching provides the opportunity for teachers to get to know their students and to be seen as approachable and available.

Teachers are more able to provide high-quality, detailed formative feedback to students when their numbers are small, and feedback can be given to individuals rather than whole cohorts, allowing the teacher to utilise eye contact, tone of voice, and body language in order to clarify and sharpen their verbal feedback.

Feedback works both ways: in small groups, there’s the opportunity for the teacher to gain feedback from their students about how the lesson is progressing, the extent to which students are learning and progressing, and how individual needs are being addressed and met.

Learning in small groups allows students to make informed judgements about their own work and about each other’s work, and this can help to deepen their understanding.

Establishing a USP

Small group teaching is only effective when it offers something that teaching and learning in large numbers cannot offer.

For example, small group teaching could provide an opportunity for students to develop their confidence in speaking, presenting, arguing, discussing and debating.

Small group teaching could also provide an opportunity for students to practise their interpersonal skills, learning how best to collaborate with others.

And small group teaching could provide an opportunity for students to reflect on the extent to which they are learning and progressing, as well as how successful that learning is proving to be.

Whatever form small group teaching takes, it must be seen to be different from lectures and whole-class teaching. Students must be made to see the benefits and be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them. By explicitly signposting the benefits of small group teaching, the teacher will go some way to mitigating against the stigma some students may feel at being “taken out of lessons” or being given extra lessons.

Articulating the want and the need

Learning in small groups – just like learning in any context – is most likely to take place when students want to learn, when they have intrinsic motivation, as well as when students need to learn, when they have extrinsic motivation – a necessity, a rationale, a purpose…

Establishing a want to learn involves them understanding why it matters that they learn what we intend to teach them. Intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to gain new knowledge.

Often, intrinsic motivation is driven by an inherent interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or necessity.

Put simply, it is the desire to do something even though there is no reward except a sense of accomplishment at achieving that thing. Intrinsic motivation is a natural motivational tendency and is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development.

Students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in a task willingly as well as work to improve their skills, which will – in turn – increase their capabilities. In small group settings, students are likely to be intrinsically motivated if they:

  • Attribute their educational results to factors under their own control – also known as autonomy.
  • Believe in their own ability to succeed in specific situations or to accomplish a task – also known as a sense of self-efficacy.
  • Are genuinely interested in accomplishing something to a high level of proficiency, knowledge and skill, not just in achieving good grades – also known as mastery.

Establishing the need to learn means giving students clear targets and making sure they know why they need to learn what we intend to teach them and how they will use that learning later.

If the want to learn is concerned with intrinsic motivation, we might loosely argue that the need to learn – the purpose – is linked to extrinsic motivation…

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain a desired outcome and it is the opposite of intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside of the individual’s control; a rationale, a necessity, a need. Common forms of extrinsic motivation are rewards (for example money or prizes), or – conversely – the threat of punishment.

Painting the big picture

In small group settings we can provide students with a rationale for learning by sharing the “big picture” with them. In other words, we can continually explain how their learning fits in to the module, the course, the qualification, their careers and to success in work and life.

For example, we can explain how today’s lesson connects with yesterday’s lesson and how the learning will be extended or consolidated next lesson, as well as how it will be assessed at a later stage. We can explain how this learning will become useful in later life, too. And we can connect the learning in one subject with the learning in other subjects, making explicit the transferability of knowledge and skills and the interconnectedness of skills in everyday life.

This is not to suggest that students will posses either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Rather, it is desirable for students to possess or develop both. Students should both want and need to learn.

However, it is natural that some students will lack the want to learn and so instilling in them the need to learn becomes all the more important.

However, a word of warning: the need to learn should be about explaining the rationale, outlining why acquiring the knowledge and skills you are teaching will be useful to students now and in the future, and it should be about showing students the big picture, connecting the learning.

The need to learn should not be about using a carrot and a stick – rewards and sanctions – to motivate students because social psychological research has indicated that the use of extrinsic rewards has the potential to reduce the level of students’ intrinsic motivation.

In one study demonstrating this effect, for example, children who expected to be (and were indeed) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition.

Having said this, the nature of the reward matters. For example, in another study students who were rewarded with a book demonstrated better reading behaviours in the future, implying that some rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation and can be educationally beneficial.

Fulfilling an educational purpose

Small group teaching can fulfil an educational purpose if it provides opportunities to build meta-cognition and character skills such as collaboration, communication, and critical-thinking, which will serve students well in the workplace as in life.

Small group teaching can also fulfil an educational purpose if students conduct a real-life inquiry, rather than finding information in textbooks or on the internet then making a poster.

Small group teaching can also fulfil an educational purpose if it makes learning meaningful by emphasising the need to create high-quality products and performances through the formal use of feedback and drafting.

And finally, small group teaching can fulfil an educational purpose if it ends with a product being presented to a real audience.

Fulfilling a personal purpose

As well being educationally meaningful, we need to make sure work completed in small groups is made personally meaningful.

Small group teaching can be given a personal purpose if we begin sessions by triggering students’ curiosity. In other words, at the start of the first small group session on a new topic, we use a hook to engage our students’ interest and initiate questioning.

Small group teaching can also be made personally meaningful to students if we pose a big question which captures the heart of the learning objective in clear, compelling language, and which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge.

And finally, small group teaching can be made personally meaningful to students if they are given some choice about how to conduct the tasks and present their learning.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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