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The role of the teacher

Small group teachers have to manage three activities simultaneously:

  • managing the group
  • managing activities
  • managing the learning.


In many small group teaching situations, the role of the teacher is that of facilitator of learning: leading discussions, asking open-ended questions, guiding process and task, and enabling active participation of learners and engagement with ideas. However, small groups function and behave in various ways and have different purposes. Teachers therefore need to be able to adopt a range of roles and skills to suit specific situations, often during the same teaching session.

Other roles that may be adopted include that of:

  • the instructor, who imparts information to students (‘first, I’ll explain the main causes, signs and symptoms of Type 2 diabetes’)
  • the neutral chair (‘that’s a good point, what do others think?’)
  • the consultant, from whom learners can ask questions (‘we’ve discussed the discharge process in broad terms now, has anyone any questions about how it works here on the ICU?’)
  • the devil’s advocate (‘and what if Mrs J didn’t want to go into … ?‘)
  • the commentator (‘I’ll just recap on the main causes, signs and symptoms of diabetes which we’ve discussed, I think there are still a few uncertainties about the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 and how we’d manage them’)
  • the wanderer, such as in a larger workshop (‘how are you all doing with the task? One thing you might think about is ... ’)
  • the absent friend (‘I see Mrs P has just come back from theatre, I’ll just check how she  is doing. I’ll be about ten minutes, while I am doing that, please can you three revise the protocol for female catheterisation and get everything prepared for Mrs D, I’ll come and check how you’re doing once I’ve seen Mrs P’)


(McCrorie, 2006).

Some of the problems associated with leading effective small groups are summarised by Jacques (2003):

  • the teacher gives a lecture rather than conducting a dialogue
  • the teacher talks too much
  • students cannot be encouraged to talk except with difficulty; they will not talk to each other but will only respond to questions from the tutor
  • students do not prepare for the sessions
  • one student dominates or blocks the discussion
  • the students want to be given the solutions to problems rather than discuss them.


Effective tutors are essential to ensuring that small groups work well. Any teaching event will be more successful if the teacher:

  • is enthusiastic
  • has organised the session well
  • has a feeling for the subject
  • can conceptualise the topic
  • has empathy with the learners
  • understands how people learn
  • has skills in teaching and managing learning
  • is alert to context and ‘classroom’ events
  • is teaching with their preferred teaching style
  • has a wide range of skills in their teaching repertoire, including questioning, listening, reinforcing, reacting, intervening, summarising, consolidating, making connections and group leadership


Making the shift from teacher as expert to facilitator is sometimes seen as diminishing a teacher’s power and authority, but this should not be the case. Facilitating learning is empowering for both the learner and the teacher and frees the teacher from many of the burdens that having to be an ‘expert’ might entail. It would traditionally have been seen as a weakness for a teacher to say ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ or ‘I don’t know, do any of you students know the answer?’ and clearly clinical teachers need to know more about many topics than their students or trainees, but biomedical science is changing so rapidly that no-one can know everything. Implementing an evidence-based approach to clinical learning and to professional practice involves finding out about the latest research, guidelines and protocols. You can use these techniques and this approach to facilitate your own and your learners’ learning.

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