Small group teaching

Oxford information

This page and related materials offer suggestions for teaching small groups (±5-15 students). At Oxford, small group teaching may be found in classes or large tutorials. While we focus primarily on classes here, you may find it helpful to consider using some of the group facilitation techniques if you are conducting tutorials of 4-6 students. In tutorials which have more than 2 or 3 students the group dynamic will be different, so adapting your approach to suit the group size is the best way of ensuring maximal student learning.

This material is primarily focused on undergraduate teaching and the section on reporting to colleges using OxCORT only applies to undergraduates. However, in many disciplines much postgraduate teaching (Masters students) takes place in small groups and many of the ideas and suggestions we put forward would be helpful for postgraduate teaching too.

Small group teaching may be for a group of students from a single college, or organised by the departments or faculties for intercollegiate groups. Most groups of this kind are designed by the department or the college tutor for a particular purpose which is not being met either by tutorials (for which groups are normally much smaller – i.e. 2 or 3) or lectures (probably more than 15 with no real upper limit). Sessions like these will be the primary focus of attention here.

The main characteristic distinguishing small groups from lectures concerns the amount of interaction they make possible between teacher and students, including both one-to-one and one-to-many exchanges, and between students (peer learning). Giving students opportunities for a more collective learning experience adds to what Oxford offers them already through formal lectures and traditional tutorials. A session that is interactive both between students and teacher and among students may be the ideal of what small group teaching could achieve.

As with all educational activities, aims which are clearly understood by all participants maximise the likelihood of successful outcomes. The University’s policy reflects this by stating that whatever the aims of classes are, they should be expressed clearly and related to the aims of the tutorials and lectures, so that students gain an unambiguous understanding of what they may expect from each. See the Education Committee’s Policy and Guidance on Undergraduate Learning and Teaching. Without a clear explanation for the aims or goals of classes, students may tend to think of them as being less important than tutorials, where they naturally experience the highest levels of individual attention. Tutors must ensure that students see that they stand to gain different – equally valuable – outcomes from each teaching setting they encounter.

The importance of clarity in this matter is emphasised in the findings of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) which investigated and reported on students’ views of the Oxford teaching model in the Undergraduate Teaching Review Report 2010. It was clear that students valued the contribution of discussion to their learning, particularly where this took place in small groups and in tutorials with at least one other student. However the students felt that tutors must have good skills in facilitating discussions and must make the intended purpose of discussions clear to students. Some students had also stated “that the classes which they had attended had not been successful, largely because the purpose behind the classes had been unclear”.

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner knows already. Ascertain this and teach... accordingly (Ausubel et al, 1978).

Where the main forms of teaching are very large lectures and relatively large seminar groups/classes, it may be daunting to find out in detail what you need to know in order to carry out Ausubel’s recommendation. However, Oxford’s predominant use of tutorials and the relatively small size of classes mean that tutors can gauge students’ understanding and plan lessons accordingly. The small class is an ideal situation in which to use feedback techniques to elicit useful information about how students’ knowledge stands and adapt one’s teaching as appropriate. The small group size means that the difficulty of addressing variation between students is minimised and individual attention is still feasible.

Adopting interactive small group teaching methodologies can help students learn the value of collaboration and group work, and develop relevant skills. Thus, in addition to the content of the class, the group process itself becomes a learning tool. Participating in classes can help students to learn:

  • successful collaboration and effective task sharing techniques,
  • inter-personal skills,
  • listening skills,
  • verbal communication skills,
  • about the synergy that can result from group discussions - a group can often produce a higher quality solution to a problem than an individual is capable of alone.

Sometimes “team teaching” is used to good effect at Oxford, with two or more tutors sharing more or less equally the instructional role. One example is in Geography where at times a team of two or three lecturers all contribute different ideas to a group discussion. Such an approach could be deployed to demonstrate the way in which diverse theoretical standpoints can be brought together to increase understanding of difficult questions in the discipline.

Some examples of ways in which small group teaching sessions are used at Oxford

  1. For teaching a ‘special subject’ paper. The usual format is that each week two students make a joint presentation, based on their preparatory reading and research, interpreting part of the syllabus for the other students. This is followed by whole class discussion led by the lecturer/ tutor.
  2. Each week a list of material is read by all students as preparation for the class and the session itself consists of a whole class discussion of issues relevant to the topic.
  3. Students are expected to work in groups of 3 or 4 (there would be 3 or 4 such groups in the class) to agree on a definition or an answer to a question. This is followed by whole class discussion where groups are also expected to respond to questions they have not prepared.
  4. The tutor demonstrates the use of a historical source document and then gives the students some questions which they must seek to answer from the source, working in pairs or threes.
  5. Students prepare a problem sheet and submit their answers in advance or bring them to the class. The tutor demonstrates the correct approach to each question and a teaching assistant helps students, and they help each other, to understand and correct any wrong answers. Whole class demonstrations may be given to explain common errors.
  6. Structured discussion with one or more students acting as rapporteurs for different parts.
  7. An exercise such as marking each other’s work (e.g. an essay) with group discussion at various points in the session.
  8. Each student presents her/his ideas for a piece of assessed work (e.g. dissertation, essay) to a ‘panel’ of discussants (i.e. both peers and tutors). Students fill in a sheet on each presentation as a way of giving feedback.
  9. Classes are often used for revision (e.g. pre-examination).

    Teaching reports

    The obligation to report to colleges on class teaching may feel onerous for tutors, nonetheless it is important and requires attention and thought. Where classes are organised by departments or faculties, the teaching staff involved remain responsible to the students’ colleges. To meet that responsibility students must be assessed formatively and their attendance at classes monitored. OxCORT is used by tutors/ lecturers to report to each college on the classes its students have been enrolled for/ taken part in. The report should indicate what part of the syllabus has been addressed and how the student is progressing. If a series of classes has been taught by different tutors, there should be a policy for providing a coherent report on each student’s progress over the series. This avoids the danger of a college receiving a number of short and uninformative reports because each tutor has seen the student relatively briefly. Each report should include the number of hours of teaching, how many students were in the group and the work each student was expected to do. Each individual student’s achievement should be assessed and his or her attendance record stated. The report should say whether they satisfactorily met the expectations of the class or not, and if their work exceeded expectations. Any problems the student experienced need to be mentioned because colleges must know if there is any cause for concern about the student’s progress or welfare.

    The formative feedback tutors provide to all student members of the group individually is a vital element of the learning experience, and they must receive this from the tutor whether their contribution was verbal or in writing, whether it was a presentation, a summary or analysis, or an essay. Remember that OxCORT’s ‘draft’ option can be used to enable you to make notes on each session and each student’s performance immediately afterwards, doing your final editing and summarising before submission. Nevertheless, don’t neglect to give immediate feedback on students’ contributions during the class; maintaining a conversational dialogue is often the best way to do this.

    For normal classes tutors should not select OxCORT’s ‘revision class’ category for their report.

    Learning more about teaching and learning

    At Oxford various workshops in academic divisions and or departments, as well as some longer, centrally-run programmes, provide preparation for teaching in different settings, including small groups. See Teaching development programmes for information about what's available. All workshops and programmes give opportunities to hear from experienced tutors, discuss your experiences so far and address your questions or concerns. Together colleagues in subject areas and the Learning Institute aim to provide something for all levels of experience, from graduate students teaching a few hours in their specialisms, to university lecturers with full teaching and research loads.

    The Learning Institute can also sometimes provide a tailored seminar for individual department, faculty or college needs, if enough people participate (see Bespoke workshops). We design sessions addressing practical questions to do with Oxford's teaching settings (including small groups), identifying common problems and finding ways of solving them, and developing the skills you need to develop student's learning more effectively.

    I find managing the space and equipment to make a big difference to the success (or not) of class teaching

    An Oxford tutor

    Ideas and tools

    Think about the skills you need as a teacher in order to maximise student learning in the class or small group situation. How would you go about equipping yourself for...?

    • facilitating and evaluating discussions;
    • understanding dynamics of groups;
    • selecting activities and tasks to achieve particular purposes;
    • determining and planning for any difficulties that are likely to arise from particular class activities;
    • dealing with over-talkative and shy or retiring types who attend your class;
    • designing or adapting measures to help students get the best out of the learning opportunity afforded by the class;
    • assessing student learning and giving appropriate feedback;
    • evaluating your own performance as a teacher.

    Once the size of a group reaches five or more, the things which help to create a good small group learning experience might be very different from those in conventional tutorials. You might consider using a white board or flip chart to ensure important points which emerge during discussion are reinforced. Also try to adapt the teaching space appropriately for the kinds of activities you plan, e.g. sufficient space for presentations; for discussion, a conducive space with the right number of chairs, perhaps around a central, large table.

    A specific discussion format useful as a class-teaching methodology to promote student problem-solving and decision-making skills isStructured Academic Controversy (218kb) (Johnson et al, 1996). It takes students through of a process of investigation, presentation and discussion of opposing academic views on contentious topics in their discipline.

    Tuckman and Jensen (1977) contend that all groups attempting to work together go through inevitable stages which they named as “Storming, Forming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning”. So, to begin to achieve anything (in this case learning), the more quickly the group (class) advances through the stages the better. A group which meets once a week for eight weeks may need to be given some early challenges which force them to work through the first two stages in a timely fashion. Stages in Group Development (45kb)describes Tuckman and Jensen's five-stage model and offers suggestions as to the purpose and strategies to be adopted at each stage by the facilitator (tutor). It has also been observed, however, that groups may move through the stages of the model within single sessions as well as over the course of a number of weeks of working together. In reality the stages are easy to identify but may not occur in such a linear fashion as the model suggests. Sometimes a group may seem to have returned to ‘storming’ when they would have been expected to be ‘performing’ happily – tutors may need to consider whether the constitution of the group has changed or some other challenge has altered group members’ perceptions and caused this apparent regression. Being observant and noticing when this is likely to happen and when it is happening, will allow tutors to adjust their own tactics in response.

    Given Ausubel et al’s exhortation to “teach accordingly”, gathering feedback in any form from students is generally a good idea. Feedback can be collected through informal chatting, semi-formal focus groups or by means of various types of written questionnaire (paper, online, etc). We offer this example of a student feedback form (23kb), which was created for a class/ small group, to demonstrate a range of questions on which feedback can be sought. You may wish to adapt the form directly or simply use it to prompt your thinking as you consider what you wish to discover from the feedback you plan to collect.

    The Critical Incident Questionnaire (38kb) represents a different approach to feedback. It asks students in five questions to describe details of their response to aspects of teaching sessions, prompting them to think about what is helping or hindering their learning so far. It can be used to facilitate a week-by-week (or other interval) dialogue between the students and the tutor. See Brookfield & Preskill (1999, pp38-40) for a description of how its author uses the questionnaire. This type of student feedback can be directly useful to students as well as to tutors. For example:

    • Tutors are enabled to maintain a dialogue with students and adapt the learning activities and their teaching approach as needed in response to students’ reactions, comments, or difficulties. Realistic self-evaluation of their own teaching is also facilitated.
    • Students should be encouraged to keep copies of each submission, enabling them thereby to have a complete record of their own immediate responses throughout the course, and to distinguish patterns and variations within them. This demonstrates to them that learning is about personal engagement. Systematic reflection over a period of time on the progress of that engagement is made easier by using this tool. In some circumstances the idea of asking students to produce a reflective summary of the term’s learning engagement and using it as a basis for formative feedback may be appropriate.

    In Discussion as a Way of Teaching (1999), Brookfield and Preskill state that “discussions... tend to increase motivation, promote engagement with difficult material, and give people appreciation for what they can learn from one another and for what can be accomplished as a group”. They acknowledge the difficulties that can accompany the use of group discussions in class and offer practical suggestions for questioning, listening and responding techniques which can be used to keep discussion going and to ensure that student learning is maximised. See Brookfield & Preskill Summary (139kb) for further details.

    One of the biggest challenges in small group teaching is to ensure everyone participates. Some students tend to dominate discussions while others rarely speak up. In the OUSU report mentioned above, students indicated their belief that it was the tutor’s responsibility to ensure that all students are participating and engaging with the class content. Unequal participation may indicate that learning also is more uneven than it should be across the group. Keeping Student Voices in Balance (218kb) offers pointers to help analyse the cause of problems and suggests actions or strategies to address them. It also recommends a number of discussion techniques which, while they help to balance participation across class members, also contribute more generally to the development of the skills students need for engaging in worthwhile discussions.

    Ensure you are always alert to the needs of any class member who has a disability and make arrangements accordingly. See Creating accessible tutorials and small groups for advice and ideas.

    Class teaching case studies (73kb). These cases offer genuine problems from an Oxford context which you may like to think about, possibly as a starting point for discussion with colleagues. You may also consider using these with graduate students who are preparing to take on class teaching responsibilities.

    Insights from research and literature

    Class teaching offers the opportunity for student-teacher interactions which are less formal and more inclusive than is possible in most lectures, and the chance for more sustained peer interactions than usually take place in Oxford tutorials. In small groups students are able to learn from each other’s insights as well as those of the tutor, and discover that quality learning can result from pooling knowledge and understandings.

    A number of educationalists have defended the use of small group teaching methods, focusing in particular on the value of the discussion which this format makes possible (e.g. Abercrombie, Northedge, Brookfield and Preskill, etc).

    Abercrombie (1989) used group discussions of scientific experimental results to help medical students learn how to exercise judgement, to consider alternative views and to be aware of otherwise taken-for-granted assumptions which could affect decision making. By discussing the experimental results in a group of peers, together with the tutor, students learned to express their own conclusions, to explain them and respond to them being challenged, to listen to alternative points of view and to modify their own understanding in the light of them, to fit their new knowledge to their prior knowledge in ways that made sense and could be explained. This was all done by means of multiple sources of feedback provided by the group of about 12 peers. Students learned to judge feedback and incorporate or reject it appropriately.

    Northedge (2003) was concerned with academic ‘discourse’ and the ways in which it is a responsibility of teachers to enable students to become participators in the specialist discourse of their discipline. He describes the use of a strongly teacher-led process which is nonetheless based on interactive group discussions and debate. Through the use of this technique, students first become sensitised to the specialist use of language, then they begin to understand it and consequently to use it for themselves, both in speech and writing. Whilst this important aspect of ‘graduateness’ is developed by means of tutorials at Oxford, it can be seen that the additional stimulus of wider peer debate makes classes an ideal setting in which to strengthen this facet of the students’ developing skills. Northedge also describes the teacher’s role in transforming students into expert users of the discourse (in this case in social sciences):

    • First, to lend to the students the capacity to frame specialist meanings by presenting information in the context of compelling and realistic examples which students can readily relate to.
    • Second, to devise logically sequential excursions from familiar into unfamiliar territory, enabling students to discover new meanings through practice and participation, rather than by ‘being told’.
    • Third, to coach students in speaking and writing the discourse. Coaching writing is not grading and correcting, rather it consists of feedback which responds with comments and questions to the meanings expressed, helping the student to achieve greater clarify and force of argument within the specialist discourse. Speaking is coached by reframing spoken ideas with the terms of the discourse and modelling the discourse by ad hoc demonstration of analysis and argument construction and correctly using the specialist language in tutor contributions to group discussions.

    The above text was based on:

    Abercrombie, M L J. (1989) The Anatomy of Judgement. Free Association Books: London. See Chapter 5, The Nature of Free Group Discussion, pp67-83. Also Argument, p142.

    Ausubel, D P, Novak, J D and Hanesian, H. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd Edition). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    Brookfield, S. (1990) The Skillful Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. See Chapter 8, Facilitating Discussions.

    Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. See Chapter 6, Understanding Classroom Dynamics.

    Brookfield, S. and Preskill, S. (1999) Discussion as a Way of Teaching. SRHE & Open University Press: Buckingham. See Chapter 5, Keeping Discussion Going Through Questioning, Listening and Responding, pp67-80. Also Chapter 3, Preparing for Discussion, which discusses the use of the Critical Incident Questionnaire, pp38-40.

    Entwistle, N. (2009) Teaching for Understanding at University. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

    D.W. Johnson, R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith. (1996) Academic Controversy: Enriching College Instruction through Intellectual Conflict. ASHE / ERIC Higher Education Report. 25(3).

    Northedge, A. (2003) Enabling Participation in Academic Discourse. Teaching in Higher Education. 8(3), 169-180.

    Oxford University Student Union. (2010) Initial Response to Oxford’s Review of its Teaching Model. Downloaded from: on 10 January 2013.

    Tuckman, B.W. and Jensen, M.A.C. (1977) Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited. Group and Organization Management. 2:4. 419.

    Additional resources:
    Brockbank, A. and McGill, I. (1998) Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. SRHE: Buckingham. See Chapter 9, Becoming a Facilitator: Facilitation as Enabling Reflective Learning, pp145-165.

    Jaques, D. (1991) Learning in Groups (2nd Edition). Kogan Page: London. See Chapter 6, Tasks and Techniques, pp75-114 and Chapter 7, The Tutor's Job, pp115-137.

    Stenhouse, L. (1972) Teaching through small group discussion: formality, rules and authority, Cambridge Journal of Education 2:1.