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Problems in small-group teaching
WHAT CAN I DO WHEN STUDENTS DON’T TURN UP FOR MY SMALL-GROUP SESSIONS?
As with large group settings, in practice, there’s little mileage
in trying to ‘force’ students to turn up to any element in their programmes, and when students don’t regard small-group teaching as particularly important, the problem of absenteeism increases. However, a combination of one or more of the following tactics can improve things sometimes:
• Make sure it’s worth turning up.
When the students who are present come away with something they would not have wanted to miss (be it the experience of the light dawning, tasks they found valuable doing, and so on), the word can get around and attendance can improve.
• If possible, get fellow students to do the heavy lifting
Ask some alumni/previous year’s students to describe, live or on video, how they bene ted from doing the tasks and what it helped them learn
• Ask some regular absentees ‘what’s wrong?
Sometimes there could be a timetable clash you didn’t know about, or travel dif culties relating to a particular time slot. Sometimes, of course, the answer can be ‘I didn’t  nd the sessions helpful’ and you may need to probe gently into ‘why not exactly?’ and remain ready to listen to the responses.
• Keep the assessment agenda on the table.
When students can see that each small-group session has
a bearing on helping them become ready for future exam questions, assignments or other required activities (e.g. preparation for placements), or helps them see what’s being looked for in coursework assignments, students are less likely to miss.
• Include at least some coursework mark for ‘participation’.
Don’t just include it for attendance however, or the odd student may come along but not join in! Have them answer
a question or two on Vision. If you did this at the start, you could use this to assess prior or current knowledge and perhaps tailor the session based on that feedback. Or you could do it at the end to assess learning. If the sessions were more discussion based or group problem-solving you might be able to use a simple peer review or peer assessment process to reward participation?
WHAT CAN I DO WHEN STUDENTS REFUSE TO DO A TASK?
This is an awkward one. If al/the students won’t start your task, it’s worse. The following tactics can help.
• Make sure the task brie ng is really clear. It sometimes happens that they won’t participate because they can’t
see what needs to be done, so you may need to repeat your brie ng with further explanation. It can be useful to say ‘what it really means is...’ and then put it into straightforward language.
• Show the task on a slide. Sometimes, students can get the gist of a task much better if they can see it and hear it at the same time.
• Try to  nd the block. For example, ask students “Which part of the task are you having problems with?” and see if clarifying that part helps them to get started.
• Break the task into smaller bits. Ask students to just do the  rst bit now, and then explain the later stages one by one when they’re properly under way.
• Ask them to work in pairs to start with. You can then go around any pairs which still seem reluctant to start the task, and  nd out more about what could be stopping them.
• Set a precise timescale for the  rst part of the task.
Sometimes this is enough to get them started.
• Resist the temptation to keep talking. Stop talking and
wait expectantly, making it clear that you expect them to get stuck into the task. A few seconds of expectant silence may seem interminable to you, but the resistance to getting started with the task may be fading away. You might even try leaving the room with the expectation that they will all be on task by the time you get back.
WHAT CAN I DO WHEN STUDENTS DON’T GET ON WITH EACH OTHER?
This is more likely to come to the surface in small groups than in large groups. The following tactics can help.
• Re-arrange group membership periodically. This can be done randomly, but checking that particular pairs of students who didn’t seem to be getting on are then moved apart into different groups.
• Give them all a task to start on their own. Sometimes if all of the students have already invested some energy in thinking through the topic before the actual group work begins, differences between students are pushed further into the background.
• Make the  rst part an individual written task. For example, ask everyone to jot down a single idea relevant to the task. Then when everyone is armed with at least one idea, the chances of students not getting on with each can be reduced.
• Go closer to the people who don’t seem to be getting on. Sometimes, your proximity will cause them to bury any differences - for the moment at least. You may also then get the chance to work out what exactly has been causing the confrontation between the students concerned.
• Watch out for the occasional ‘dif cult student’. When the same person doesn’t get on in group work contexts with different individuals, it can be worth having a quiet word. Just sometimes, you’ll  nd the odd student who really doesn’t function well in group contexts.
• Recognise that some students just  nd interpersonal interaction really dif cult. This may be due to personality issues or may be caused by discomfort sometimes associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If it is either of the latter, you may be able to make reasonable adjustments to the task you are asking them to undertake.
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