The pros and cons of small group teaching

Written by: Archie McGlynn | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are both pros and cons to teaching small groups or classes. Archie McGlynn looks at the key questions teachers (and schools) should ask when considering this approach

Following a recent review of lessons featuring class and group sizes well below the school’s average, I was invited to draft some ideas to support a teacher workshop on the topic.

My thoughts outlined below are just a beginning – perhaps for an INSET CPD session – to get teachers thinking about how to become a “good” teacher of classes of small size to promote quality learning. I also list some key questions to consider and my own view of the pros and cons of teaching small groups.

Debating small group teaching

In introducing this topic with teachers, I allocate them to one of the four topics listed below, inviting teachers to work in pairs or small groups (no more than four to a group) and challenge them to discuss and write up in poster style:

  1. How can we maximise learning in classes of small size?
  2. What are the challenges facing the teacher and pupil in classes of small size?
  3. What are the disadvantages of classes of small size?
  4. What are the different learning methods required for classes of small size?

I deliberately allow overlap across the questions so that the teachers can approach the overall issue from a slightly different angle or perspective, depending on the question allocated to them.

I then ask the groups to display around the room their posters (which would have been prepared in the group session using coloured pens) so that everyone can have time to view the “art gallery” to identify what seem to be the big issues which have arisen during the discussions.

Next in plenary session, with each group presenting, the aim is to encourage the teachers (as a whole group) to come up with their categorisation of the issues and challenges, and some thoughts on small class learning and teaching (perhaps using and/or adapting the key questions which I have set out below).

There are different ways to present group findings and a variation on the approach above would be to invite each group to present its key findings, say maybe three to five points and have someone write up the feedback in “shorthand” style and then move to the plenary discussion/decision on to how to present the evidence/findings.

The facilitator(s) could introduce, subtly, from time to time some of the big issues mentioned below (if they have not already appeared in the discussions).

The overall aim of the workshop is to produce a “working agenda” which the teachers feel is their own and which they are therefore more likely to buy into.

Each teacher would be invited in the final part of the workshop to self-evaluate and ask her/himself: “How does my teaching in classes of small size compare?” Thus the teacher’s own agenda could be placed beside the overall agenda.

The next step is for the school is to draw up an “agenda for action” and decide on how best to implement this to improve learning in classes of small size, including how to monitor progress alongside teachers. Peer-observation should be an important aspect of the follow up.

The key questions

Q Is it better to have a “good” teacher than having a small class size? The answer in almost all cases is yes. A quality teacher can perform well and create learning opportunities whatever the class size (within reason). So the aim should always be to recruit quality teachers. The teacher is more important than the class size – this is backed up by research evidence and my own work over the years.

Q Are different learning methods required for small class sizes (fewer than 12?) and “normal” class sizes (around 20 to 34)? It is important to remember that many of the learning approaches used in normal (20 to 34) class sizes are equally appropriate in smaller classes. It is about how the teacher adjusts and adapts the methods to meet the different challenges of the two class sizes. Both sizes require the standards we expect from a good teacher – for example, clear objectives for the lesson, classroom routines, classroom management, time-management and review time.

Q What are some of the advantages of small class sizes? There are a number of pros to small class teaching. First, there are many opportunities for student-centred learning with less concern over aspects such as behaviour, organisation and time-management. For example, group and/or paired tasks can usually be completed and reported within the period.

Second, there are many opportunities for more communication between teacher and pupils and between pupil and pupil than in larger class sizes. Pupils can have time to speak and contribute in many varied ways. Everyone gets chance to perform different roles in class activities and group work.

Third, “extra” space in classroom/laboratory means that it is easier to move pupils around. This facilitates change of direction, making use of locations within the room to become associated with particular activities, and making it easier to set-up group and paired work. For example:

  • In English language or humanities subjects a location can become associated with learning through role-play, discussion and analyses of an article.
  • In science, locations can be associated with experiment and problem-solving time.
  • In maths, teachers can invite pupils to adopt a corner of room when looking at influence of maths in everyday, practical world.
  • Some teachers designate a day of the week for a particular activity and location. Another learning technique is to play music which becomes associated with a particular type of assignment, or study moment.

Approaches like this help to break the possible boredom of same seat, same location around the teacher every lesson. It is a bit like the advice from Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the original thinker associated with “flow”, who cajoles and persuades us to do something different every other day, like changing our usual route to work. In other words, teachers should “surprise themselves” every so often.

Fourth, small classes give the teacher time and opportunity to ask more challenging questions, making use of pair and group work and engaging the class in sustained discussion. This means too that there is less reliance on following the textbook page-by-page, and this means that the teacher can introduce greater creativity by using different examples.
Pupils can be asked more readily to read up and prepare topics from the textbook in advance to free-up time for Q&A and interaction in the lessons. Pupils can be asked from time-to-time to do the preparation themselves or even to lead on a topic, especially in years 10 and 11.

Fifth, with subtle facilitation, the class can become a community with shared aims, leading to a positive ethos and higher expectations on the part of both the teacher and student – what I refer to as “a buzz”.

Pupils can learn to support one another with greater ease and confidence than in larger sized classes. Instructions can be tailored more easily to pupils’ needs given teachers’ greater knowledge of pupils’ strengths and weaknesses.

Sixth, there is more time for teachers to handle differentiation within the class. With small classes, a teacher gets to be very familiar with each pupil so it is easier to look at setting up individual learning targets and to monitor progress without taking away from covering the syllabus.
Finally, in small classes the teacher has more time for reviewing pupils’ progress, carrying out and checking assessments and homework assignments.

Q What are some of the challenges of small class sizes? However, there are a number of cons to small class teaching as well:

  • Tasks can be completed quicker so the teacher has to have back-up material ready to fill space and time. This back-up can vary according to subject, but might include games, extra problems, more demanding work, puzzles, another chapter of a book, tasks designed for differentiation, etc.
  • Pupils can feel under pressure to always be involved, always contributing to lesson and always taking some kind of role in group work. It is less easy to “hide” in small classes. This can be a good thing, but it can also increase pupil anxiety. This means that the teacher has to be aware of pupils’ sensitivities. Some shy pupils will need to be nurtured differently from those who are over-confident and ready to dominate every other task.
  • Following the point above, praise becomes very important, and teachers have to avoid putting pupils “on the spot” and them “losing face”.
  • Teachers, especially those who tend to teacher-centred learning, need to adapt to the student-centred, participation requirements of small classes.
  • Teachers have to be well organised to ensure there is variation in learning methods, variation across the week in terms of activities and locations within the classroom, and how to change the dynamics of the class and learning when there is just a handful of pupils.
  • Lack of diversity within the small number of pupils and less opportunity to mix and learn from the members of a larger group.
  • Fewer activity options in some cases as some learning methods work better with a minimum number of participants.

Further reading

The discussion continues and it is always useful for us to refresh our understanding of the messages from the “emotional intelligence school” (e.g. see Howard Gardner), the “flow school” (e.g. see Csikszentmihalyi), and introductions to the impact of recent “brain research” on the way we learn (e.g. try works by Eric Jensen including The Learning Brain and Teaching with the Brain in Mind).

This article was inspired by a recent piece in SecEd advocating the teaching of large, lecture-style lessons for older students in secondary education. This is also worth a read (Teaching: Big groups, big results? SecEd, May 2018).

  • Archie McGlynn is an independent education consultant. He is founder-director of the Hong Kong Schools Self-evaluation Network (2004-2015) and founder-director of the Hong Kong Scotland School Improvement Partnership. His book, co-authored with Professor John Macbeath, entitled Self-evaluation: What’s in it for schools?, has been translated into Swedish, Italian and Slovene. Archie was formerly HM chief inspector of schools (Scotland) where he put in place How Good is Our School, self-evaluation guidelines.



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