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Types of small groups

Models for small group teaching are designed around either specific tasks or defined purposes. When planning the type of small group teaching that might be most appropriate for your session, think about the learners who will be involved, the resources available (teachers, facilitators, ‘experts’, patients, rooms, equipment), the learners’ needs and the learning outcomes that are to be achieved.

Small group teaching can be structured around:

  • topics or themes – e.g. evidence-based practice, asthma, chronic airways conditions
  • clinical cases (actual patients or case notes) – e.g. Mrs X has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis …
  • clinical problems or scenarios – e.g. problem-based learning, a child with a wheeze
  • situations – e.g. critical incident or significant event analysis
  • tasks or skills – e.g. multidisciplinary team meetings, clinical audit, examination of cardiovascular system.


The format of small group teaching events needs to encourage and facilitate participation by all group members. Sometimes, there is little or no choice about the sort of event that a teacher has to facilitate (e.g. a tutorial on nutrition during lactation or skills teaching on peak flow meters) as these are pre-planned as part of a programme. Knowing some of the advantages and disadvantages and aims of each of these can be helpful in terms of your own preparation and expectations.

The next section considers some of the most common formats and types of small group teaching event; see Improve Your Lecturing for more techniques in teaching large groups.

Seminars and tutorials are two of the most traditional models for learning in groups in higher education. The words are often used interchangeably but the main aim of both is to encourage group discussion. Teachers tend to have a more directive role in these types of small group teaching event, although it can be useful to rotate the leadership role around the participants.

A ‘seminar’ normally describes a group discussion led formally or informally by the tutor, focusing on issues arising from subject matter. The number of students is normally between eight and 20. In the traditional model, one student will be asked to present a critical analysis or other preparation to introduce the discussion. Often seminars are used at postgraduate level, providing a forum for presenting research findings to a constructively critical group of academics and peers.

The word ‘tutorial’ tends to be used for smaller group teaching events where more time is spent with individual learners and their development, using certain aspects of subject matter to stimulate debate. In one-to-one tutorials the tutor may look at assignments prepared by the learner or discuss career options or other professional development topics. Tutorials can also be delivered online. Tutorials can be very successful if a clinical or other ‘trigger’ is used to stimulate discussion and debate. Triggers might include videos, photographs, results of tests or investigations, prescribed drugs, or, in problem-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (see below), a short paper-based scenario or set of case notes and test results.

Clinical tutorials should focus on the solving of patient problems rather than delivering factual information. You will need to plan the teaching, with clear aims and objectives. Ensure that learners know that they will be expected to participate, and set tasks for them to perform in preparation for the tutorial. Remember to act as a facilitator and encourage interaction between the participants. You should avoid conducting tutorials in which you or your learners present topics. If, for example, you wish to have a tutorial dealing with hypertension, then the case notes and investigations of a patient with hypertension should be the focus.

See ‘Small Group Activities’ in the Teachers’ Toolkit.

Workshops are educational seminars or meetings where there is interaction and exchange of information; sometimes they are designed to generate information or a position paper. They may be offered on a residential basis over several days to introduce a course and core topics, or at the end to reinforce and integrate learning. They are particularly useful as part of blended or distance learning programmes to bring participants together face-to-face or to deliver learning where there is a need for resources, people and equipment to which students do not normally have access. A range of activities can be used, including role-play triggers, video, case studies and patient encounters to set the scene and stimulate discussion and debate. Workshop-style events can also be used within health professional programmes (such as on disability; dying, death and bereavement; dignity and compassion; teamworking) with larger or inter-professional groups to encourage movement around groups, access to experts and debate.

Journal clubs are where everyone is asked to present their comments on recent papers in the scientific, health professional (or other) literature. This works well, provided the topic is of direct relevance to participants, everyone comes prepared and there is time for discussion and clarification. It should not turn into a series of mini-lectures.

Syndicate groups are where participants are asked to prepare (individually or in pairs) on a pre-selected topic around a theme (for example, on different conditions/diseases around a theme of chronic obstructive airway disease) and report back at the syndicate group. Again this needs to be well-facilitated, everyone needs to have prepared and be willing to contribute, and time needs to be set aside for discussion.

Action learning sets (ALSs) are frequently used in postgraduate staff development and training. They comprise a group of six to eight people who come together around shared and negotiated tasks, problems or ‘issues’. Some ALSs are task-focused, others are set up to support and facilitate personal and professional development and allow individuals to bring work-related ‘issues’ to the group, which helps the person to reflect, find solutions and discuss options. There is a set structure to an ALS, with clear ground rules around time and participation. The group usually facilitates itself, although some sets are facilitated and more task-focused. See ‘Action Learning’ in the Teachers’ Toolkit for more information.

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