Teaching Methods: Small group teaching

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Faculty of Arts

Small group teaching: perceptions and practice

Amy Bogaard (School of Humanities), Sabine C. Carey (School of Politics & International Relations), Gwilym Dodd (School of History), Ian D. Repath (School of Humanities), Richard Whitaker (School of Politics & International Relations).


Educational research has shown that student-centred teaching promotes a deep approach to learning including conceptual development and change (Marton and Saljo 1976). Small group teaching (SGT) is a widespread form of student-focussed undergraduate teaching in the Schools of History, Humanities and Politics at the University of Nottingham. We define small groups a "situations where students are actively interacting with each other or a tutor, and are actively engaged in a dialogue for analysis, reflection or critical thinking" (C&IT http://ctiwebct.york.ac.uk/aster/askaster/display-questions.asp?ID=37). At its best, SGT can foster deep learning (Jacques 1989), but research is needed into the precise methods and sequence of approaches suitable for undergraduates in the course of their University career.

By the end of their undergraduate education students are expected to have developed a range of skills that will be essential for their future careers. Of particular importance are analytical skills, presentation skills and social skills. Small group teaching is especially suited to achieve these goals. It is often assumed that the learners will automatically progress and further develop these skills over the course of their three year degree. However, it is extremely important to provide targeted guidance and assistance to achieve these goals. Therefore, different teaching and learning tools might be more successful at different stages of the university education.

Aims of the project are to address the following issues:

  1. What do students and lecturers perceive to be the purpose of SGT?
  2. What SGT methods are currently used in the Schools of History, Humanities and Politics and with what degree of success?
  3. What problems are associated with SGT?


We interviewed 25 lecturers in the Schools of History, Humanities and Politics about SGT. Lecturers at different levels of their career were targeted for selection and interview. A semi-structured interview approach was adopted, in which a standard set of questions was used. Interviews with teaching staff were followed up by a survey of students in the Schools of History, Humanities and Politics from all levels (first, second and third year), eliciting their views on SGT. We selected a random sample of 25 students from each undergraduate level (for a total of 75). To ensure a high response rate, students were offered 5 pounds for completion of the questionnaire. Funding for this was obtained from the Learning & Teaching Development Fund.


The outcome of the project is twofold.: First we present an overview of current practice of SGT in the Schools of History, Humanities and Politics. Second we evaluate the success of methods used in SGT and draw conclusions about best practice.

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Paper presented at the University's Third Learning & Teaching conference (September, 2003). and since published: Amy Bogaard et al. (2005) "Small Group Teaching: Perceptions and Problems." Politics, 25(2): 116-125.
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