Guest Post: Ten pitfalls of small group teaching

A guest blog post from Nadine McCrea


Recently I had the pleasure of facilitating an evening seminar on small group teaching. We had a lot of fun, spending most of the time having discussions and undertaking tasks in a variety of bizarrely named set-ups (snowballing anyone?). We identified that small group teaching provides huge scope to promote active learning. Instant feedback is possible (for the teacher as well as the learners), and individual learning needs can be addressed. It can also promote skills in problem solving, communication and team-work. However, it isn’t always plain sailing: we also discussed a long list of potential pitfalls. Don’t worry though, here are a few key principles which, if followed, will help you tackle most pitfalls and produce some innovative small group sessions.

1. The teacher talks too much

2. The students don’t talk

3. One student dominates

4. Personality clashes

5. Different levels of learner

6. You worry you won’t “cover” as much

7. It gets disorganised

8. Death by PowerPoint

9. The teacher has to spend a huge amount of time preparing

10. The teacher fails to respond to feedback


The solutions

1. Set ground rules

This is a great way to guard against many of the pitfalls. For example, everyone contributes, mutual respect, start and finish on time, leave replying to emails til later.


2. Break the ice

Start with some non-threatening questions, for example everyone could say their name and their favourite dessert (mine is tiramisu).


3. Use small group techniques

Jaques (2003) describes some excellent small group techniques which can be used to get everyone involved. In “rounds” everyone in the group is given a turn to speak without interruption. In “snowballing” ideas become refined as they are presented to groups of increasing size. These more formalised ways of turn-taking can also help to diffuse more domineering characters.


4. Use a timer

Strict time-keeping is vital.


5. Plan ahead

Unfortunately there is no escaping from pitfall 9. Cutting corners on planning could result in a disastrous session, whereas a well organised teacher will be rewarded with an enjoyable, productive session, full of inspired learners. With experience, planning will become easier and faster.


6. Allow students to lead

This is a good way to provide valuable training on communication, team working, and leadership.


7. Count to 10 before you speak

Don’t be tempted to answer your own questions if none of the students speak up straight away. Using a little silence will help you avoid talking too much, and show the students that you are interested in hearing their views.


8. Use stratified learning

Tasks of varying degrees of complexity can be set for smaller groups of similar experience. Reece and Klaber (2012) demonstrate this using the example of neonatal jaundice: medical students are asked to discuss the pathophysiology, junior doctors describe the clinical assessment, nurses discuss the practical aspects of looking after a baby on phototherapy, and senior doctors discuss how they would counsel parents whose baby needed an exchange transfusion.


9. Sign posting and follow up

It’s common to worry that small group work is an inefficient way of teaching, that a lecture would cover more material to larger numbers of people. However, promoting active (and interactive) learning in small groups can lead to much better understanding of the topic. Instead of trying to cram lots of material in, focus on key areas, then sign-post to further activities. For example, I set my colleagues the task of trying a new small group technique in their next teaching session, then reflecting on it.


10. Gather feedback and reflect

One advantage of small group teaching is that informal verbal and non-verbal feedback can be sought from all participants during the session. A good facilitator can modify their session in response to these immediate cues. A nice way of checking whether your session was successful is to ask the participants to each give one key point, in place of a formal summary from the teacher.


As with any aspect of life, reflecting on events is a vital part of improvement. I like to think of the teaching session concluding only once I’ve evaluated it, addressed the feedback, and made a plan of how to improve next time. I challenge you all to do the same.




Jaques D. Teaching small groups. BMJ

Reece A, Klaber R. Maximising learning on ward rounds. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 2012;97:61-7. 

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