“Learning takes place through the active behavior of the student: it is what he does that he learns, not what the teacher does.”

Ralph W. Tyler (1949)

Tyler (1949) just rephrases the old adage that we learn best by doing. This idea is the basis for all constructivist learning theories (see particularly Piaget (1950) and Bruner (1960, 1966)), which essentially suggest that learning happens when students ‘construct knowledge with their own activities’ (see Biggs, 2007, p. 22). From an instructor’s perspective, it is vital to create a environment where the student can engage with the material instead of one where the educator only presents knowledge.

Far too often the instructor thinks that just because she/he went through certain material, students will have grasped those concepts and be able to apply what has been taught. However, this is not necessarily true (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Suggesting that students need to create knowledge and practice themselves is not unique to small group teaching. Indeed, it applies to all kinds of learning environments. Yet, while in large group settings instructors often rely on audience response software and other technologies, in a small group setting the implementation of interactive learning activities is far more straight-forward.

Biggs (2007) identifies different learning activities that can be implemented, often depending on the group size. For larger groups simple peer discussion, the use of audience/personal response systems, e-learning projects such as Wikis, Twitter or Facebook and Moodle forums can be effective. However, with small groups, there is the possibility for effective use of class discussions, games and experiments, think aloud tasks, role play, research projects, presentations or collaborative group work. Such activities put students in charge of their own learning.

Research suggests that when students create knowledge themselves, retention rates are much higher. The so called ‘learning pyramid’ matches retention rates to different learning activities. Sousa (2006) ranks different learning modes according to their average retention rates after 24 hours: lectures (5%), reading (10%), Audiovisual (20%), Demonstration (30%), Discussion Group (50%), Practice by Doing (75%) and Teach Others (90%). While the educational literature still debates the validity of these estimates, there is a general consensus about the effectiveness of participatory teaching methods.

Activities with higher retention rates are those that engage the student to construct new knowledge, for example through reflection, hypothesizing, explaining and arguing, thereby facilitating so-called deep learning. Enabling deep learning is a key aim for a successful instructor. Figure 2 orders some learning activities in their relation to deep and surface learning.

Figure 2: Bigg’s Adjectives to Describe Cognitive Engagement (from Biggs, 2007)

Small groups ideally lend themselves for activities which facilitate deep learning and which can create a constructivist learning experience. Table 1 is an overview of activities that an instructor can implement:

Table 1
Suggestions for small and medium sized group sessions Activities
Working in pairs
  • Prepare answer to a question
  • Clarification of ideas
  • Compare individual answers and arrive at a joint answer
  • Marking each other’s work
Working in threes
  • As with pairs
  • Speaker/listener/observer
Working in fours or fives
  • Debating topic and arriving at a team view
  • Preparing answer for plenary session (use of flip-chart paper)
  • One or more members present team view to whole seminar
  • Project team with division of labour
‘Pyramid’ or ‘snowball group’
(combining groups or adding individuals to groups one-at-a-time)
  • Group problem solving
  • Bringing together and comparing work/answers/views of small groups
  • Getting the different constituent groups to focus on a particular aspect of a topic and then bringing the aspects together to form an overall view/report
(the ‘fish’ discuss an issue, while outside observers note criteria used etc)
  • Group problem solving & discussion
  • Exploration of an issue
‘Envoys’ or ‘crossover groups’
  • One person from each group joins a different group to inject new ideas into discussion.
  • Groups are split up and re-formed to share ideas.
Formal debate
(four speakers, formal debate rules, contributions from floor, vote at the end, possibly vote at beginning also and then two votes compared)
  • Individuals assigned roles in advance, so that they can prepare their speeches.
  • All students required to prepare the topic in advance. Then groups assigned to each side and prepare their speeches.
  • Individuals then chosen by tutor or by lots to make the speeches.
‘Your witness’
(modelled on Radio 4 programme)
  • A panel of students is chosen, primed to represent different views on a topic. Other students are given a specific part of the topic to prepare and to be the ‘expert’. They are called upon one-at-a-time and the panel quizzes them. Tutor chairs the proceedings.
  • Seminar split into several panels and the ‘experts’ move from group to group. Each group then prepares short report in the light of the evidence it has gleaned. Reports are then presented to the whole seminar or handed in to the tutor for marking.
Quiz show
(individuals or preferably in teams)
  • There are many shows that could be copied or adapted, such as University Challenge, The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be Millionaire? or Brain of Britain.
  • Students could prepare specific topics
Presentation with primed respondents
  • An individual student is assigned to prepare a short presentation/paper and one side of A4 of key bullet points/diagrams/ equations, which are distributed to the rest of the group in advance or tabled. Another student is assigned to be the respondent. The rest of the students are assigned to particular aspects of the topic and asked to prepare one question.
  • Two or more students are assigned to prepare particular aspects of a topic, and then as above.
  • Advance reading is done, and then the final draft of the paper is prepared in small groups, and one student is allocated to make the presentation.
Role playing
  • Students allocated specific roles and given a scenario. (Examples of role playing include: price setting under oligopoly, wage negotiations, international trade negotiations, pre-Budget ministerial/interest group negotiations.) The tutor can introduce new evidence as the exercise progresses.
  • Watch a video with at least two points of view. In small groups, students each take on the role of someone in the video and debate the issues.
Game, simulation or experiment
(there are many games or simulation exercises available)
  • Whole-class games (single session)
  • Games in small groups (single session)
  • Games played lasting several weeks, where a round is played either weekly or at less frequent intervals. The time taken playing a round in class may be only a few minutes. Much of the playing/negotiation can take place outside the class.
Computer lab session
(using instructional software, such as WinEcon, or using data sets and/or statistical packages: see Economics Network site for details of software)
  • Tutor-led. Tutor introduces the software (maybe using a data projector) and then students work on an assigned task, individually or in pairs.
  • Tutor-supported. Students work at their own pace and the tutor is available or provide support of the student is stuck or has questions.
Virtual seminar
(distance-based learning, using chat room facilities of a virtual learning environment/conferencing system, such as Blackboard or Moodle: students contribute from a terminal on site or at home)
  • Tutor-led, real time. Students log on at a particular time and then the tutor leads a debate, with students contributing on-line. Can be done anonymously, with students identified by number or fictitious name. Seminar can last for a normal period of time.
  • Tutor-led, open time. Student log on when they please and contribute postings to a debate.
  • Student-led (no tutor present): either real time or open time. Tutor can come online afterwards to post comments.
(preferably not longer than 20 minutes)
  • Students then prepare answers to set questions and report on them.
  • Quiz on video material
  • Debate (whole or small groups) on issues raised. Students can be allocated specific roles.

While implementing many of these activities may seem daunting at first, they are likely to improve student learning immensely. In addition, they are fun both to organise and perform in the classroom.