Article Text

Tips for small group teaching
  1. Catriona Bell,
  2. Jessie Paterson and
  3. Sheena Warman


This article, the fourth in a series aimed at providing veterinary staff and students with tips and tools to enhance teaching and learning, looks at how to make the most of small group teaching situations.

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Catriona Bell qualified from the RVC. She has worked in practice, and completed a residency and a PhD at the University of Glasgow. She is currently a senior lecturer in veterinary education at the University of Edinburgh.

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Jessie Paterson graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in agricultural chemistry, followed by a PhD looking at cobalt deficiency in cattle and sheep. She is currently a lecturer in student learning at the University of Edinburgh.

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Sheena Warman graduated from the University of Glasgow and worked in mixed practice before completing a residency at the University of Bristol. She is currently senior clinical fellow in small animal medicine.

THIS article draws from evidence in the literature and the authors' experiences, and focuses on ideas for optimising small group teaching situations. The ideas discussed could equally apply to small group formats with colleagues (eg, sharing new techniques from a recent CPD course) and clients (eg, puppy parties or smallholder seminars), as well as with students and veterinary nurses. This article forms part of a series published in In Practice, aimed at providing veterinary staff and students with tips and tools to enhance the teaching moments which occur on a daily basis in practice. Previous articles have introduced the different ways in which people learn, gave tips on fitting teaching into a busy working day and tips for making feedback effective (Bell and others 2014, Warman and others 2014a, 2014b). Specific techniques for teaching practical skills will be discussed in a later article in this series.

Why is small group teaching important?

Small group teaching sessions can vary hugely in their formats and in the number of participants involved. Compared to the relatively impersonal experience of a traditional lecture format, where the speaker addresses a large audience with minimal interaction, small group formats facilitate and encourage interaction both among the participants and between the session leader and participants. This helps to foster a collaborative learning environment and can enable participants to learn from one another as well as from the session leader (Race 2006). If an appropriate learning environment is created, small group teaching sessions can provide a forum in which people feel safe to ask questions; this can help to promote discussion and debate and clarify misunderstandings, and enable problem solving by participants (Steinert 1996). If pitched appropriately and delivered successfully, small group sessions can also provide an excellent tool for generating positive publicity and helping to bond clients to your practice.

Planning a small group session

Key content

Jot down the key points that are important to get across during your session and design the session around them, being careful to include a manageable number for participants who might be new to the subject. If appropriate, these key concepts can be turned into ‘learning outcomes’ or statements of what the learner should be able to do by the end of your session (eg, ‘By the end of this session you will be able to successfully give your puppy a worming tablet’).

Small group teaching formats help to foster collaborative learning by encouraging interaction among the participants and the teacher


Decide on the optimal number of participants; this will often be influenced by room availability and the topic that you are covering. Also consider whether you want to divide participants into smaller subgroups within your session (eg, groups of three to six people can work well for generating discussion). It's also worth considering the range of participants who might be attending and whether you are happy for them to form subgroups ‘naturally’ or if you would prefer to do this strategically in advance (eg, to provide a range of experience and knowledge within a group or to ‘separate’ two strong personalities).

Background knowledge

Consider what the background level of knowledge is likely to be among your participants before the start of the session. Think about whether you might need to quickly cover or summarise any key topics at the beginning of your talk to make sure that everyone's understanding starts out on the same page.


How much time do you have available for your session? Is there a set time frame or can you (and the attendees) be flexible? Aim to jot down an outline of the session plan which includes not just the order of each section but also a rough idea of the length of time each one might take up. Importantly, make sure that your outline includes plenty of time for tea/coffee/refreshment breaks!

Box 1: LOGIN: starting off your small group session

  • L -Layout of the room

  • O- Overview

  • G - Ground-rules

  • I - Icebreaker

  • N - Names


As discussed in the first article of this series (Bell and others 2014a), your participants are likely to vary in their individual preferences for how they learn best and also in terms of the length of their concentration spans. Try to build your session around a variety of presentation types (eg, short presentation, demonstrations, discussions, annotating images, etc), and break your session down into ‘manageable chunks’ of 30 minutes or less to aid concentration.

Starting a small group teaching session

We've found the ‘LOGIN’ acronym (see Box 1) helpful when designing and starting off small group teaching sessions, as it is a good mnemonic to remember the following five steps.

(1) Layout of room

Many practices will have significant limitations on their options for room layout. If possible, select an appropriate sized room that has flexible furniture and configuration options. Arrive before the start of your session with plenty of time to spare and try to arrange furniture in either a horseshoe (if using a screen or whiteboard) or as a circle configuration, ideally around a table, so that you can make eye contact with all participants throughout the session. Try to sit at the same level as the participants within the horseshoe or circle (rather than at the front of the room). This will help to encourage discussion and also to reduce the impression of a teacher/student divide. ‘Cafeteria-style’ seating arrangements around several tables can also work well, facilitating small group discussion. If you're using visual aids such as Powerpoint slides, a ‘wireless presenter’ mouse can be very useful to facilitate this layout and can be purchased for less than £20.

(2) Overview of session

Always provide participants with a brief overview of the session, ideally both verbally and in writing, so that they know what to expect. Having an idea of what is coming up can also help them to set up ‘mental folders’ in their brains for the material that you will be covering. It is very helpful to provide a ‘hook’ at the start of your session that will get them engaged early and which explicitly states how the content of your session will be relevant and useful to them.

(3) Ground rules

Establish the ground rules of the session in collaboration with the participants at the start of the session (eg, ‘Please turn mobile phones to silent mode’, ‘We would like all participants to get involved in the session and to offer their opinions’, ‘No question is a silly question tonight – please feel free to ask anything that you are unsure about’). Such statements can help ensure that everyone knows what the expectations during session are and can also make some people feel more at ease.

FIG 2.

People vary in how they prefer to learn, so teachers should plan to use a variety of teaching styles, such as hands on demonstrations, along with short presentations, group discussions and so on

(4) Icebreaker

A carefully chosen icebreaker activity at the start of the session is another way to help introduce participants to one another, to relax them and to encourage them to ‘talk out loud’ early in the session. However, icebreakers are not everybody's cup of tea, so select one that you personally feel comfortable with. These activities can range from a short, light-hearted group activity to simply asking participants to state their name along with one thing that they hope to get out of the session. (An quick internet search for ‘icebreaker activities’ will quickly generate a variety of different results for ideas.) Also, don't forget to introduce yourself and give a brief, relevant overview of your background to make it clear why you are leading the session.

(5) Names

Using participants' names can help to set a relaxed and friendly tone for your session, and can also be a very helpful tool for drawing quieter participants into small group discussions (eg, ‘Amy, what methods have you tried for training Barney to walk on the lead?’). A sheet of blank labels and a dark marker pen can be very useful if you don't know the names of all participants in your session. You can ask them to stick the labels in an easily visible place near their shoulder.

During the session

Questioning techniques

Try to anticipate areas that participants might struggle with and plan relevant questions in advance that will draw out key issues or concepts. Learners might need varying amounts of mental processing time before coming up with an answer to your question, so it is recommended that you count to five before expecting an answer (the ‘five-second rule’ - which in practice can feel like a very long time). After five seconds, if no-one responds to your question consider rephrasing it or take your question back a level in complexity. Acknowledging incorrect responses to questions in a non-threatening manner can also be important, so phrases such as ‘That would be true if . . .’ can be helpful. For example, ‘That would be true if we were feeding an adult dog, but in this case we're thinking about feeding a young puppy’.

Engaging quiet or shy participants

Setting the mood at the start of the session, and defining ground-rules and expectations, can help to encourage contributions from all participants. Other techniques which can help encourage contributions from quiet or shy participants include using their names to draw them into discussions, and also asking participants to discuss an issue or question with the person next to them for one minute before opening it to the whole group for responses. The latter technique can give hesitant participants reassurance that they're ‘on the right track’ before volunteering an answer in front of the whole group.

Managing ‘dominant’ or interrupting participants

If you're aware that certain participants have (or think they have) considerable experience or knowledge about your subject there are a number of ways to tackle this before it disrupts the flow of the session. You might want to include a comment about interruptions or guidelines for sharing knowledge when you define the ground rules at the start of your session. Careful use of participants' names and targeted comments might also help to keep the discussion on track. If these techniques fail to manage the situation then you might need to adopt more direct tactics, such as handing the dominant individual a marker pen and asking them to scribe on the board for you; this removes them from the circle and from direct eye contact with you. Alternatively, using humour tactfully or having a quiet word with the individual (perhaps introducing them to the five-second rule) can help, but such direct approaches need to be judged carefully so as not to put off the participant. Examples of phrases that can be used within different types of participants are listed in Table 1.

Table 1:

Examples of phrases that could be used with different types of participants

Closing a small group teaching session


Timekeeping is important, so you might want to nominate a colleague to give you a subtle sign if the timings in your session plan are not on track. Try to allow at least five minutes for drawing your session to a close and, if necessary, you might need to decide to sacrifice some of your content ‘on the hoof’ rather than missing out on drawing the session to an appropriate close.

Techniques to consider within this closing period include: summarising key points, restating learning objectives, inviting questions, and using a short quiz format.

If you have follow-up sessions planned it's also helpful to make links to these explicit (eg, ‘Tonight we've covered grooming your puppy and checking it's eyes, nose, teeth and ears. Keep practising these techniques with them over the next week, and next time we'll discuss preventive treatments such as wormers and flea control and teach you how to give your puppy a worming tablet’).

It can also be very helpful to ask participants to complete a short evaluation form about the session so that you can use their feedback to modify future sessions if necessary.


Further reading

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