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What is a ‘small group’?

A typical view of a ‘small group’ is around eight to 12 learners facilitated by a teacher. ‘The purist view of small group teaching is that it must be learner-centred, with all students joining in free discussion of a particular topic’ (McCrorie, 2006, p. 5).

In clinical teaching, however, groups may be smaller than this, sometimes even a pair of students or trainees working with a healthcare team. In other cases, as higher education programmes take larger numbers, ‘small groups’ may comprise as many as 25 or 30 students. Small groups can also operate within a much larger setting, such as a lecture, workshop or conference. Small group teaching is necessarily more demanding of staff and room resources and time than lectures; however, well-designed small group teaching has clear benefits for student learning in terms of retention of information, critical thinking and consolidation of learning from different parts of a programme (McCrorie, 2006, pp. 1–4).

As McCrorie notes, however, ‘group size is probably less important that what the group actually does’ (2006, p. 5). So what characterises a ‘small group’ is not so much its size, but the teaching and learning context and the way in which the teacher works with and facilitates the learning process. Small groups provide opportunities for learning that are difficult to establish in large group settings. They are particularly useful to enable learners to take part in discussion, active participation, feedback and reflection, and to consolidate learning, clarify understanding, and explore ideas and concepts. Depending on the purpose and nature of the group, small group teaching can also help to develop ‘transferable’ skills, such as study skills, communication skills, teamwork, problem solving and personal development. 

Small group events have an emphasis on learning (as opposed to teaching), a specific task or focus and involve active participation by group members. One of the characteristics that differentiates small group teaching from large group teaching is that there is a greater attention to group processes as well as to achievement of tasks. Some of the aspects that help to make small group teaching effective in the clinical environment include both task- and process-related aspects and draw from adult learning theory:

  • building on and relating activities to learners’ prior knowledge and experience
  • relating to the perceived learning needs of the participants
  • involving active learning and participation
  • enabling group interaction within a positive group atmosphere
  • adherence to group goals
  • cases that promote critical thinking and problem solving
  • being clinically relevant and applicable to practice
  • facilitating the integration of knowledge and skill
  • cycles of action–reflection
  • allowing the acquisition of technical skills
  • effective tutors

(de Villiers et al., 2003; Steinert, 2004).

We go on to consider some of these specific aspects in more detail in the following sections.

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