The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4.4 Choosing whether students work individually, in small groups or as a whole group

It is helpful to organise seminars so that some time is spent with students working individually, some of the time working in pairs or small groups and some of the time as a whole group. Varying between these options within the seminar helps to reduce the weariness that sets in when students are asked to participate in the same way throughout a session.

Working individually

One reason for asking students to work individually on a task is so that they can prepare their personal ideas, views or arguments in response to a problem or a piece of stimulus material. It makes sense for this kind of preparation to be undertaken before the session, but there may also be times within a seminar when it is helpful to give students an opportunity to work alone. If students are given time to prepare an answer rather than being obliged to provide immediate responses, they are more likely to produce a considered response and likely to benefit from the time spent working out an appropriate answer. A second reason for asking students to work on their own is to provide an opportunity for the seminar leader to talk with individuals to gauge and respond to students’ understanding.

Individual work may take the form of silent reading activities, problems or case studies. For example, you might ask students to read through an article and identify the application of economic theory, or to consider the answers to a series of related questions that can be used for a small-group discussion in the latter part of the seminar. Alternatively, you might have students complete a worksheet that covers a number of concepts from the previous lectures. This enables you to discuss progress with students on an individual basis, and, if the students are required to submit the worksheets at the end of the seminar period, it will provide you with more information about overall student understanding of the different topics studied. As a rule, individual work creates lower levels of interaction between the seminar leader and students (because attention is focused on one individual at a time) than other formats. For this reason it makes sense to use individual work sparingly.

Working in pairs and small groups

When students work together in pairs or small groups, the quantity of interaction is increased, and evidence from research reviewed by Springer et al. (1999) suggests that achievement is promoted, attitude towards learning is improved and willingness to work hard is increased. Students can be asked to work together in pairs or small groups to consider the answers to specific problems, discuss ideas, prepare for whole-class discussions, compare their answers or mark each other’s work.

If you include an in-class test as part of your unit assessment, you can incorporate this into a subsequent seminar activity. When you mark each test paper, identify the one or two questions that caused the student most difficulty. Identify these questions on the test paper. Pair each student in the seminar group with a student who had difficulty with different questions and ask them to work through, with their partner, those questions that you have identified at the top of each of their papers. This exercise requires students to revisit material that they did not understand and pairs them with a student who demonstrated a stronger understanding of that same material. Working through these questions again with a partner, and discussing the areas that created the most difficulty, helps both students to gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

Encouraging students to learn from each other is a prime objective in organising students in small groups. It is therefore important to consider the way in which students are grouped. Less confident students can learn from the understanding of more confident students, and students with a higher level of understanding can consolidate their thinking through explaining ideas to others. Pairing quiet or less confident students with more outgoing students can often be beneficial to both parties, whereas putting all the outgoing, confident students into one group may lead to conflict and a less than successful outcome to the whole activity.

Top Tip: It is important that all seminar activities are treated as evolving processes – adopting a very rigid approach does not allow for the flexibility often necessary to make an activity a success. If the dynamics of a group are detrimental to the success of an activity, change either the size of the groups or the particular pairings that were originally chosen. This can often revive a flailing activity and might be the only change necessary to turn the activity into a valuable learning experience for the students.

It is important to monitor small-group activity to make sure that groups are not diverted from the task or taken over by one individual. Monitoring is quite demanding, as the seminar leader needs to be aware of how other groups are progressing at the same time as interacting with one group. There is also a danger that the seminar leader will get drawn into ‘taking over’ groups, stifling their discussion. Students need space to initiate and develop their ideas before they are ready to engage with the seminar leader.

During the first part of small-group work, the seminar leader’s time is best spent listening to the ideas being put forward by students as they discuss with each other. This creates opportunities to identify misconceptions, emphases and omissions. Some misconceptions may be shared by several groups, and it is more efficient to interrupt the group work and address these on a whole-class basis. In other cases there will be questions that the seminar leader will want to pose to a particular group, along the lines of ‘Why do you think that?’, so that the onus is put on the students to articulate and expose their reasoning.

Box 1 outlines different types of activity that may be used with small groups in seminars. Different styles of small-group teaching in seminars are discussed in great depth by Brown and Atkins (1990). Chapter 4 provides an excellent review of the possible pitfalls that a seminar leader may encounter and discusses student expectations, group sizes, group dynamics, types of small group activity, and tactics for questioning. Further suggestions may be found in Tiberius (1999), and Light and Cox (2001). The LTSN website also offers valuable examples and a discussion of important issues in small-group work.

Box 1 Activities for individual or small-group work

The following list provides some ideas for tasks to set individuals or pairs of students in a seminar. These exercises could be followed in the second half of the session with a larger group activity.

  • Ask the students to construct a model or create a diagram relating to a technique or topic covered in the lecture.
  • Provide students with a case study to read and discuss; they can identify the main issues, jot down some key questions, write a proposal, take some notes, make decisions/proposals about a case, read and note some ideas for discussion.
  • Ask students to make choices between various questions/scenarios, e.g. true/false, possible/impossible, discuss whether different scenarios are realistic/unrealistic etc.
  • Provide some text for students to read and analyse.
  • Suggest a thesis/proposition and ask students to prepare a case for or against it.
  • Ask students to choose between alternative solutions to solve a problem.
  • Ask students to work through written mathematical proofs/calculations/problems and spot deliberate mistakes in the problems given.
  • Ask students to develop a presentation together and then present to the whole class.


  • Give students a scenario, ask them to discuss the arguments for and against a proposal and then ask them to present their views to the whole class.
  • Ask students to work through old test questions – or essay questions – and discuss the answers.
  • Ask students to solve problems in small groups (each group working through a different problem) and then rearrange the groups so that each student can explain their particular problem (with solution) to the other students in their new group.

  • Ask students to devise a map or solve a puzzle: for example, in a seminar about coordinates and finding the equation of a line, create a map on some graph paper and ask students to find the location of a specific object by plotting a series of intersecting lines.
  • Ask students to match key concepts introduced in the lecture to sentences in a newspaper article.
  • Give each pair of students an answer and ask them to devise an appropriate question drawing on the content of the most recent lecture.
  • Use quick-fire questions, quizzes or team games to test knowledge and understanding.
  • Select a series of quotes about a topic (preferably some that express conflicting views on an issue, e.g. the health service, trade relations, foreign direct investment, economic development programmes) and ask students to discuss their quote with reference to material presented in the associated lecture.
  • Show 5–10 minutes of a video, ask students to prepare answers to a variety of questions and then have them present their work to the class.
  • Show 5–10 minutes of a video and then give students a short quiz that relates some of the video material to the lecture material. This could be followed by a group discussion about the answers, which will enable students to see the relationship between the lecture material and the video material.
  • Ask students to prepare presentations in small groups, taking opposite views on a specified topic.
  • Ask students to work through exercises and compare answers with a partner or group.
  • Ask students to compare essay plans that are clearly different in quality.
  • Provide students with two pieces of text (each about 150–200 words long) which present different views of a topic or situation. Ask students to produce a new piece of text, no more than 100 words in total, which combines the two sources.

Working with the whole group

The start and end of each seminar will typically involve the seminar leader in working with the whole group. At the beginning of the seminar, it makes sense to work with the whole group in introducing the purpose and structure of the seminar. At the end of the session, the seminar leader can consolidate the learning of the students and highlight key points. However, it may be best to work with the whole group during the main part of the session as well.

Whole-group work is well suited to formal debate, review discussions, role-play, having members of each group circulate to inject new ideas into other groups, having students from one group teach other groups how to solve different problems, and organising a formal debate. You can also use a fishbowl approach, whereby a small group of students are given a topic to discuss while other students observe. This gives students a chance to listen to a discussion about a specific economic issue and to hear how other students present differing views and opinions on a topic. Larger groups (4+) can be productive, but these activities tend to be useful only to very specialist seminar activities. More often than not, the group is too large to focus on individual learning. The quieter and weaker students become sidelined and the larger group sub-divides into unproductive cliques.

Top Tips: Get students actively involved. Get them to debate, deliver and present individual or group arguments and ideas. This type of activity gets students away from their ‘comfort zones’ and encourages them to stay actively involved in the activity for the duration of the session.

Keep activities to a maximum of 20 minutes then move on to another topic/method. Continually introducing additional elements to the exercise/activity will keep students interested.