Skip to content. Skip to navigation

Faculty Development

You are here: Home / Small Group Teaching / Types of small group event

Types of small group event

There are a number of models for small group teaching, designed around specific tasks and with a specific purpose in mind. 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 lung conditions
  • clinical cases (actual patients or case notes) - e.g. Mrs X presents with…
  • clinical or community-based problems - e.g. problem-based learning, a child with a wheeze
  • situations - e.g. critical incident or significant event analysis
  • tasks or skills - e.g. X-ray meetings, clinical audit, examination of cardio-vascular system.

The format of small group teaching events needs to encourage and facilitate participation by group members. Sometimes, there is little or no choice about the sort of event that a teacher has to facilitate, 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. Lectures and clinical skills teaching are covered in two other modules in this series: Improve your lecturing and Teaching clinical skills (please note this module will be available soon). 

Seminars and tutorials are two of the most traditional models for learning in groups in higher education. The words can be 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 students 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 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 students/trainees 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 students/trainees 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 ‘Facilitating learning: small group teaching methods’ in Explore this topic, for further discussion and ‘hints and tips’ for delivering seminars and tutorials.

Workshops are educational seminars or meetings where there is interaction and exchange of information; sometimes they are designed to generate information or position papers. 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.

Journal clubs are meetings of staff where everyone is asked to present their comments on recent papers in the medical (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.

Print module to PDF

Save a PDF of this module, so you can print it and read it in your own time.

Email your comments

Let us know what you think about this module or give us your feedback.

Further information

More information about this module, further reading and a complete list of glossary terms.

Learning activities

Read about the recommended learning activities for this module.