Using technology in planning small group teaching sessions

Following on from an excellent session as part of the PFA (Preparing Future Academics) programme on small group teaching, I though I would post a few thoughts and examples of how technology can incorporated into planning small group teaching sessions.

In an attempt to practice what we preach, before participants met face to face they were asked to complete a couple of short online activities;

  1. a survey to assess areas of concern and interests
  2. watch relevant videos and discuss online to engage students with the topic and kick start the in class discussion.

As well as providing the instructors with essential feedback on students understanding and helping us to tailor the session design to address specific areas of concern or interest, the online activities highlighted what could be seen as the essence of much small group teaching and perhaps gives us a starting point for how we might prepare for it. I feel that the graph below of student responses illustrates an interesting correlation between the main benefits and the main challenges of small group teaching; the things that are the most important (getting all students to discuss critically) also seems to be the thing that we think is hardest to achieve. So what do we do? Retreat to powerpoint led mini lectures? Allow the more vocal to dominate discussion? Throw out some interesting questions and hope it will be OK?

Perceptions of Benefits and Challenges of Small Group Teaching

Perceptions of Benefits and Challenges of Small Group Teaching

Before we have a look at a few of the examples here at York of how technology can be used to help students to prepare for or consolidate their learning from small group teaching, it might be useful to think for a moment about why developing stimulating critical activities in which all students participate can seem so daunting. What barriers might students have to overcome, and teachers have to consider to create the type environment where open, critical, inclusive, engaging discussion occurs where everyone participates and develops their learning? When we asked this question in the session, some of the answers that came back were;

  • Shyness
  • Individual students dominate the discussion
  • Teacher dominates the discussion
  • Cultural differences
  • Student expectations (or laziness) – its your job to teach me, why make me work?
  • Approaching a topic “cold”, students have not had chance to or haven’t bothered to formulate their thoughts
  • Confusing or poorly designed activities that do not inherently lead to open discussion.

So what can technology do to help? Some of the approaches highlighted below might be worth considering to help your students prepare beforehand, encourage them to participate during or consolidate their learning after a session.

Engage students with the questions and get them discussing online beforehand – Post selected resources online and ask for short reflections in a discussion board / blog in advance of the session. This will help to kick start the face to face session, meaning students have had chance to form ideas ahead of time and instructors can pick up on refer to points raised in the online space.

Provide online activities that inform subsequent face to face sessions – develop online tasks that will be picked up on or form the basis of activities in face to face sessions. A couple of great examples of this from Sociology and English where students work in small groups on pre-session tasks and present the outcomes to their peers in the face to face sessions.

Ask students to research and provide resources relevant to the topic – gives students a sense of ownership a shared set of resources and help to develop them as a learning community, as with this example from Language Education.

Model innovation with technology and give students a voicethis example from a few years ago at the faculty of Politics (University of Leeds) encouraged students to create podcasts of their responses to seminars. Instructors did the same. Students developed their academic voice and confidence and saw their contributions valued. This approach could easily be updated to incorporate other forms of media, particularly YouTube.

Consolidate learning, value student contributions and make links between sessions ask students to respond to themes raised in seminar discussions, drawing on points raised by individuals in personal learning journals or open discussion spaces.

There’s lots of literature out there and some really simple ideas that have proved really effective. One big thing to be aware of is that getting students to participate in online activities can be even more difficult that getting participation face to face. I feel that this may be the subject of another post but in the meantime the article below from University of Oxford’s Melissa Highton offers some great suggestions.

Encouraging participation in online groups

Tips on facilitating effective group discussions

One response to “Using technology in planning small group teaching sessions

  1. Pingback: What next for Departmental VLE use? | E-Learning Development Team·

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