- Research staff
- Developing your career
- Small group teaching: seminars, labs and problem classes
Small group teaching: seminars, labs and problem classes
Small group teaching has a number of benefits, both for the students and the teacher:
- students tend to contribute more freely than in large groups – sharing and getting feedback on their ideas, views, knowledge and understanding
- students can interact with and learn from each other as well as from you
- it is easier to make a connection with students – you get to know them better
- it can be more flexible – you can gauge what students know and adapt your teaching accordingly.
Possible formats for the seminar include the following:
- tutor presentation - the tutor explains a particularly challenging concept or theory
- tutor-controlled discussion - the tutor poses a series of carefully structured questions to the whole group
- case studies - a case may be presented and students may be asked to answer questions and discuss issues raised
- seminar paper - the group may listen to and then discuss a paper presented by one of its members
- ‘Buzz groups’- students may be asked to think about a question or problem in twos or threes for a few minutes before the discussion is broadened out to the whole group
- syndicates - students are set a more substantial question or problem which they work on in groups for most of the session, sharing their findings at the end
- brainstorm - students call out their thoughts on a particular question or issue. These are written up for future discussion. The aim is to generate as many ideas as possible.
As a tutor, you may be given a full teaching brief to follow, or you may be able to design your own approach.
Students often come to seminars with particular concerns. These may include:
- being forced to contribute
- feeling that the tutor is assessing them
- having to learn at the speed of the slowest student
- the group being dominated by one student
- long silences.
It is important to be sensitive to these concerns and to try and accommodate them in your teaching methods.
Tutors have their own concerns too: students not preparing; participants not joining in; one or two individuals dominating the discussion; or discussions going off-topic. There are a number of ways to encourage students to prepare and participate fully; these are just a few suggestions:
- give students guidelines on how much preparation to do and make sure that it is realistic
- give them guidance on how to approach a task (e.g. ask them to answer a list of questions in relation to an article rather than just reading an article)
- choose one student at random to lead-off the discussion for two minutes and then choose two others to comment
- ask students to come prepared to make six points in relation to their reading
- make the preparation relevant by linking it to an essay or other piece of assessed course work
- split the group into smaller sub-groups so there is less risk involved for students in asking questions and voicing opinions
- go round the group asking each student to answer a question
- ensure that a certain percentage of the students’ overall mark is based on seminar participation
- introduce relevant topical or controversial issues (but beware of presenting a British-centric viewpoint)
- give students some control (if practicable) over the content of seminars
- link the seminars to the preparation of coursework
- ask a student to chair the seminar.
Habeshaw, S. Habeshaw, T. and Gibbs, G. (1992) 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Seminars and Tutorials, Technical and Educational Services, Bristol.
These can be of two forms: either supervised classes during which students work through problem sheets (individually or in groups), or classes which are used to go through the answers to problems that have been set in advance. Possible formats include:
- self-help groups – students work on set problems while the tutor is available to answer questions or provide guidance
- tutor board work – the tutor writes their solution to a problem or a particular part of a problem on the board
- student board work– a student is asked to write their solution to a problem on the board.
Common worries about problems classes are similar to those for seminars (hyperlink within page).
Tutors can use a simple model to illustrate the process of solving a problem:
- state the problem
- clarify the problem
- brainstorm ideas for tackling the problem
- select the most feasible approach
- apply the procedure
- check the answer
- evaluate the approach.
The model can be used interactively. At each stage, get the students to suggest what comes next.
Remember to get your students used to the possibility that there might be more than one answer, or more than one route to an answer. Encourage them to think about alternative solutions as well as your preferred solution.
When students are doing board work, it is important to give them plenty of praise and encouragement. Give your own commentary on what they are doing, or (if there is good interaction within the class) ask another student to comment. Always be prepared to help if the student gets into difficulties, but encourage them to think through their difficulty – don’t give the answer too soon.
Teaching labs are often very substantial rooms and class sizes can be large. However, demonstrators in teaching labs rarely have to look after the whole class. It is more usual to be given responsibility for a small group of students during the course of a practical.
Preparation is important. Make sure you know what the practical is about and what methodology will be used. Clarify any uncertainties or issues of concern with the lecturer in charge.
A key role of a demonstrator is to make sure that students are working safely. Make sure you are familiar with the Health & Safety implications of each practical, and that the relevant rules are enforced.
Here are some things to think about as you engage with your students:
- be approachable, friendly and efficient
- bring out the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the exercise – this will help students to develop thinking and manipulative skills
- quickly determine the level of students’ understanding – use questions and explanations to link to their existing knowledge
- avoid doing the students’ work for them
- be constructive when things don’t go well
- help students to learn from things that went right as well as those that went wrong
- treat the subject, class and students with respect and good humour
- listen with care
- if you do not know the answer, go and find out!
Comment on this page.