so you want to TEach small this fall?

Principles for Connecting through Small-Group Pedagogy

For college-level instruction during the flux of the pandemic, small-group learning has a number of benefits, from the practical (social distancing is easier to implement; the model pivots quickly from in-person to online) to the pedagogical (greater buy-in from students, heightened opportunities for mentorship).

Small groups are ideal for close work on writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. They provide a lower-stakes context for quieter students to speak up. They foster close-knit, personal interaction that builds a sense of community and collaboration. They are well suited to more personal methods of assessment, such as conferencing and self-reflection. As Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote recently in a New York Times opinion editorial, in small groups “more students end up participating collectively in the intellectual journey, rather than just the most extroverted or gregarious ones who tend to speak up during large lectures.”

These benefits are tied to learning outcomes such as intellectual engagement, improved analytical and communication skills, and self-authorshipqualities that are especially critical for graduates going forward in volatile and uncertain times. In fact, these are outcomes that are already at the heart of transformative teaching. At their best, liberal arts institutions already curate the kind of personal, inquiry-driven, rigorous instruction that tends to flourish in small-group settings. Small-group models provide a replicable, manageable framework for cultivating those outcomes. The move to more small-group learning that is currently being driven by the coronavirus pandemic might even have an unexpected benefit: the wider use and greater visibility of a model that already exemplifies the best of liberal arts teaching.

This website has been designed by the ACS working group on “Curating Connection: The Modified Tutorial Model and Other Opportunities for Small-Group Mentorship.” In particular, we have focused on two models for small-group instruction: the modified tutorial and the cocurricular small group. Although we make a distinction here between academic and cocurricular examples, we believe they share features that can usefully be applied in other contexts. We encourage our colleagues to pick and choose from these features, to mix and match as they design their own small-group projects and modified tutorials. With each model described, we list a couple of examples as well as potential obstacles or problems. In addition, we have provided a set of resources for those interested in learning more about the models presented here, and considered some of the most important challenges to consider in small-group teaching.

Produced with the generous support of the Associated Colleges of the South