Is small group teaching doomed?

In the university system in these islands, one of the basic points of consensus, at least in pedagogical terms, is that learning is most effective when teaching is conducted in small groups. This has had its most pure form in Oxford and Cambridge, where traditionally tutorials (or ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge) were conducted on a one-to-one or maybe one-to-two basis; and while this Oxbridge system may be ideal, it is generally recognised as being unaffordable for most higher education institutions. However, small groups of somewhere between five and eight students provide an environment in which the interaction between tutor and student, and indeed between the students, can significantly enhance the learning experience.

In fact, small group teaching at that level has become quite rare. When I was a student in the 1970s in Trinity College Dublin, we did have eight (or so) students in each tutorial or seminar, but by the time I left the norm was already eight or nine; and when I began lecturing in the same institution two years later I was told that groups smaller than 15 were too labour-intensive to be affordable. When I was in Hull in the 1990s, it was actually being suggested in some official papers that small group teaching was elitist and pedagogically suspect, but you could sense that there may have been resourcing considerations at the root of that suggestion.

Now as we face further and increasingly severe cuts in Irish higher education funding, we have to start facing the reality that the money we get cannot pay for small group teaching in any systematic way. We need to start addressing the impact of this and explaining it more coherently than we may have done so far. What we are experiencing right now is a fundamental change to our understanding of how we should design the student’s learning experience, but this is being done by stealth and without any real consideration of the educational principles and consequences involved.

It is time to address the matter more systematically. The arguments about how we teach and learn most effectively are not familiar to the public, or even the politicians; they need to be.

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3 Comments on “Is small group teaching doomed?”

  1. Kelly Says:

    The reason why ‘small group teaching’ is considered ‘better’ is because it is presumed that the learning takes place in a more interactive environment, in which students actually talk to one another. I suspect from my conversations with colleagues that this does not always happen, and long silences or mini-lectures from exasperated tutors fill the space.

    It takes a certain type of skill to facilitate interactive, engaged learning environments. Why do we presume this skill doesn’t translate to larger groups? I think it’s this issue we need to confront: if you believe that students learn better when they are not sitting silently and passively, how do you enable that to happen across a range of settings?

  2. Sarah Says:

    I did a degree in history in TCD 1988-92. It was very common to have no more than 8 in a tutorial and in sophister years most of our (few) classes had about 6. One course in which we had no exam consisted of pure research with occasional one to one meetings with the supervisor. It was a fabulous education. It fostered independence and yet required performance – much better that passively sitting in a lecture taking notes. And yes it does take a certain kind of skill to manage this – a teaching skill. One of my professors said he never believed an academic could properly devote himself to teaching and researching and advised that academics break up their careers into chunks – alternating between each over years – not hours in a day.

  3. David Says:

    It’s funny you mention this, because when I did my Master’s at DCU after my drgree at UL, one of the things that most surprised me was the lack of a Tutorial aspect to modules. In UL each module I took has a tutorial aspect (often lead by a postgrad student) that really enhanced learning and clarified issues from the lectures. In DCU this didn’t seem to be even considered – I wonder is that a postgrad thing generally? I felt it was something that was missing and would be sad to see it diminish generally in education


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