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Queen Mary Academy

Teaching different size groups

Small group teaching occurs in groups of sizes small enough to allow for high levels of interaction between the students and the instructors, and amongst students. This can range from casual groups (turning to those around you to discuss a question), or structured groups formed for a particular assessment, or that facilitate team-based learning over longer periods of time (Swanson, McCulley, Osman, Scammacca Lewis, Solis, 2017)

Some of the benefits of small group teaching include:

  • Opportunities for peer-to-peer and active learning and application of knowledge
  • Immediate feedback from peers and tutors
  • Enhanced rapport between students and teachers
  • Space/time to ask questions of peers and tutors
  • Chances for students to practice and develop communication skills (listening, responding, presenting ideas to peers)
  • Opportunities to develop cooperative behaviour around group problem solving and teamwork

The success of small group learning settings relies on healthy group dynamics as much as it does engaging subject content. When designing and planning small group teaching, some of the challenges that should be considered are:

  • What are your expectations with regards to engagement and have they been effectively communicated will your students? Do students understand when it is okay to talk/disagree? Are there opportunities to co-create community guidelines?
  • How will you support students in a second language who struggle with the rapid aural response format?
  • Are there feedback mechanisms for students who are reluctant to speak in class due to anxiety, shyness, speech impediments, or other potential barriers to participation?
  • How will you address unhealthy social behaviours that disrupt the group dynamic (social exclusion)?

When designing small groups learning experiences in online spaces, consider how you will support interaction both during live sessions and asynchronously, particularly for groups that span long periods of time. 


Brown Fiechter, S. & Actis Davis, E. (2016). Republication of “Why some groups fail”. Journal of Management Education. 40 (1), pp. 12-29.

Boud, D., Cohen, R. & Sampson, J. (eds.) (2001). Peer learning in higher education: learning from & with each other. Psychology Press.

Esisi, M. (2010). Small group teaching. BMJ. 341:c6402.

Exley, K. & Dennick, R. (2004). Small group teaching: tutorials, seminars and beyond. Taylor & Francis.

Jaques, D. & Salmon, G. (2007). Learning in groups: a handbook for face-to-face and online environments. Fourth edition. Abingdon, Oxon: N.Y., NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Leask, B. (2009). Using Formal and Informal Curricula to Improve Interactions Between Home and International Students. Journal of Studies in International Education. 13 (2), pp. 205-221.

Michaelson, L. K., Dee, F.L., & Knight, A. (1997). Designing Effective Group Activities: Lessons for Classroom Teaching and Faculty Development. To Improve the Academy. 385.

Swanson, E., McCulley, L.V., Osman, D.J., Scammacca Lewis, N., & Solis, M. (2017). The effect of team-based learning on content knowledge: A meta-analysis. Active Learning in Higher Education. 20 (1), pp. 39-50.

The Higher Education Academy (2013). Small group teaching: a toolkit for learning. Available from:

University of Oregon Small Group Teaching Techniques [PDF 1,008KB]


Video: Breaking the ice with new seminar groups. Prof Alastair Hudson gives his advice and discusses his experiences of breaking the ice with a new group.



Video: Anwering questions in seminars. Prof Alastair Hudson discusses how to answer the difficult questions from students in a seminar, especially those to which you may not know the answer, using examples from his experience


Video: Debates in Small Groups. Dr Françoise Boucek talks about her use of debates in teaching with small groups, the practical aspects and benefits.


Video: Learning journals online to support small group teaching. Dr Warren Boutcher discusses his use of online learning journals to aid small group teaching and some of the previous difficulties with their use.

Large group teaching refers to settings in which the size of the group minimises the amount of interaction students can have with the teacher and with each other. This includes traditional lectures, where students passively absorb information being presented by a “sage on the stage.”

While enrollment and staff numbers often necessitate that our practice include some degree of large group teaching, it is still important to consider how to incorporate active learning opportunities into these settings. Digital applications allow for a lot more latitude when designing curriculum materials that deliver content to a large audience. This may include the use of presentation tools (e.g PowerPoint, Prezi, 3-D diagrams) and student response systems (SRS) (Turning Point, Mentimeter) for live, synchronous teaching. Presentations created using tools like Kaltura to be consumed asynchronously may also deepen learning by including interactive media or quizzes.

Some questions to consider when planning content for large groups are:

  • How are you setting expectations for engagement? Is it clear if/when students can interrupt you to ask questions?
  • Do you understand the technological requirements of your chosen SRS?
  • What type of media (images, video, interactive diagrams, etc.) are best suited to your content? Will students be able to engage with it outside of synchronous teaching sessions?
  • Have you reflected on your “performance” as a lecturer? Are you an engaging presenter?

Another way to reconsider large group teaching is through the lens of the Flipped Classroom. Flipped Classrooms combine asynchronous online activities (readings, recorded lectures) that students complete outside of class with synchronous learning activities in which students interact with peers and instructors (Lee, Lim, Kim, 2017). Flipped classrooms can help teachers reconsider how they and their students use their time together, by encouraging students’ active learning to take place while the teacher is available to assist and answer questions, as opposed to on their own time.


Bligh, D. A. (1998). What’s the use of lectures? Fifth edition. Exeter, UK: Intellect.

Chen, K., Monrouxe, L., Lu, Y., Jenq, C., Chang, Y., Chang, Y., & Chai, P. (2018). Academic outcomes of flipped classroom learning: a meta-analysis. Medical Education. 52 (9), pp.910-924.

Gibbs, G. Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing [online]. Available from:

Gunderman, R. (2013). Is the Lecture Dead? The Atlantic [online]. Available from:

Lambert, C. (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Harvard Magazine [online]. Available from:

Lee, J., Lim, C. & Kim, H. (2016). Development of an instructional design model for flipped learning in higher education. Educational Technology, Research and Development. 65, pp. 427-453.

Liu, C., Sufen, C., Chi, C., Chien, K., Liu, Y., & Chou, T. (2017). The effects of clickers with different teaching strategies. Journal of Educational Computing Research. 55(5), pp. 603-628.

Renkl, A. & Scheiter, K. (2017). Studying Visual Displays: How to Instructionally Support Learning. Educational Psychology Review.  29 (3), pp. 599-621.

Thai, N.T., De Wever, B.& Valcke, M. (2017). The impact of a flipped classroom design on learning performance in higher education: Looking for the best “blend” of lectures and guiding questions with feedback. Computers & Education. 107, pp. 113-126.


Video: Large lectures: lessons from actors.  Prof Franco Vivaldi describes some simple suggestions he received from actors that he has found useful when lecturing to large audiences.



Video: Keeping students engaged in class.  Dr Erez Levon discusses the variety of techniques that he uses to keep students engaged during class and produce an informal atmosphere.



Video: Debates with large groups. Dr Françoise Boucek describes her experience of organising large group debates as part of her politics module.


 Video: Online preparation and intensive labs. Dr Brendan Curran explains how his laboratory course was re-structured to help with the problem of increasing student numbers and decreasing engagement.