Effective tutoring 2: Making small groups work well

"Assessment can be seen as the engine that drives student course activity."
(Swan, Shen and Starr, 2006)

Planning for student learning

Communicating what is expected and what will be assessed in a subject takes place, in part, through the intended learning outcomes (ILOs). These are defined by Biggs and Tang (2007) as "statements, written from the students' perspective, indicating the level of understanding and performance they are expected to achieve as a result of engaging in the teaching and learning experience." (p. 55). In other words, the subject ILOs tell students what they will be expected to KNOW and what they will be expected to be able to DO by the end of the term.

By designing your tutorial to align its learning activities with the subject's intended learning outcomes, you will be able to more clearly communicate and share expectations of the subject with the group. Undergraduate subjects at La Trobe typically have 4-8 intended learning outcomes. Below are some examples from subjects in various disciplines.

Sample learning outcomes

  • BUSINESS: International Business Environment
    Describe the effects of globalisation on markets and production.
    Explain why managers today need a global presence.
  • HEALTH: Interdisciplinary Professional Practice
    Describe the impact of current Australian health and human service systems on service provision.
    Evaluate the contribution of various disciplines to interdisciplinary practice in relation to individual and community needs.
  • HUMANITIES: Environmental History
    Identify changing understandings of humans and cultural landscapes.
    Analyse representations of the environments over time.
    Critically reflect on how humans have been shaped by natural environments.
  • ENGINEERING: Mechanical Systems
    Outline the fundamental theory of friction and wear and its application in engineering.
    Apply the principles of mechanical kinetics to single degree of freedom vibration systems.
    Work effectively as a team member in a small-scale engineering project.

The process of aligning learning activities to ILOs, which in turn are aligned to assessment tasks, is called constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2007, p. 54). Constructive alignment is a key curriculum design and teaching method in higher education and a core element in La Trobe's Design for Learning approach.

Note that some intended learning outcomes require a higher level of learning than others. To determine the level of learning required, examine the verb used to express the ILO. Describe requires recognition and memorisation, a relatively lower level of learning, whereas explain, reflect, apply, create or analyse require more "relational" or abstract levels of understanding.

For more on levels of understanding, see Bloom's Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001)
and Bigg's SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Tang, 2007, pp. 76-83).

Designing a session

What should you be concerned about achieving at the end of your session? Should you make sure you "cover" a large amount of curriculum content? Or should you ensure your students grasp key concepts, or apply knowledge and skills? These are very important questions to discuss with your subject coordinator.

Your tutorial session is one component in the subject and course in which students are enrolled. You may find that content is "covered" in lectures, and that your tutorial is intended to help students gain deeper understanding of concepts "covered" in those lectures.

Once you and your subject coordinator have discussed the overall purpose(s) of the tutorial, you can use the ILOs and subject information to design your sessions to best contribute to learning in the subject.

Below is a planning checklist to consider before you design a tutorial session.

Planning checklist

  • What are your intended learning outcomes?
  • How are tutorials linked to assessment?
    • Is any assessment carried out in the tutorials?
    • What are the assessment criteria for these?
  • How are the tutorials linked with lectures?
  • Who are your students?
    • Where do they come from?
    • What challenges might they have?
  • Structure the learning
    • How much of your session will be focussed on content, and how much on process?*
    • Where will you begin?
    • What happens in the middle?
    • How will you close the lesson?

*Process includes discussion, reflection, group work, presentation.
Content includes disciplinary activities, problem-solving, analysis, evaluating evidence, theorising, clarifying and understanding (Exley and Dennick, 2004).

Your subject coordinator may already have planned the tutorials in advance. If not, you may need to plan your tutorial sessions. The following tutorial planner can help you make your tutorials active and useful learning experiences.

(Adapted from Planning for Success, 2006, University of South Australia, pp. 17-18)

Tutorial planner
Subject Coordinator
Week Year level
Overall time Approximate number of students
Subject intended learning outcomes and assessment relevant to this tutorial
Session outcomes: what will students learn in this tutorial?
Evaluation: How will they know they have achieved these outcomes?
Teaching/learning activities - If using small group work, how will groups be formed? How will you include all students?
Resources needed for this session
Schedule of activities
Session learning outcomes Activity Time
e.g. Icebreaker to get students talking and motivated e.g. Introductions 15 minutes
Closing activity 

Engaging everyone in learning: discussion and questioning approaches

"Let the students do (most of) the work." (Pelz, 2004)

Meaningful learning does not occur spontaneously among a group of students. For that reason, tutorials need to be well-planned and structured learning experiences. Facilitating engagement among students by questioning is a key to building engagement and productive discussion. Skilled questioning opens up reflection, thinking and discussion among students.

The key to getting the students to do the work is discussion based on good preparation, with a high level of peer interaction. To promote that interaction, tutors need strategies to stimulate discussion, direct it productively, make it inclusive, synthesise key contributions, and close off the period of discussion.

Strategies for promoting discussion and peer interaction

  • Use the ground rules to emphasise there are no "stupid" questions.
  • Check that everyone understands the topic/question under discussion.
  • Start with easy questions, particularly with shy or reluctant students.
  • Pitch questions at a level appropriate for students' understanding. Use anecdotes or personal experiences – sparingly – to make connections with real world experience.
  • Use open-ended questions as well as closed questions: What? Where? When? How? Who? Why? Tell me about, tell me more.
  • Respond positively. In the case of correct/useful contributions, praise the thinking, not the individual. If an answer is inadequate or incorrect, you may need to clarify the question or redirect to another student.
  • Give students thinking time. Note that long "wait" times between question and answer are more acceptable in some cultures than in the Anglo-Irish tradition.
  • Ask students to write down an answer to a question first, and then share that answer with a colleague.
  • Encourage student questions. Frame the discussion topic such that it requires questions to further the enquiry. Ask students to prepare their own questions on a topic.
  • Rephrase and redirect discussion to other students, "Robert argues that …", "What do you think, Emily?"
  • Return the discussion to the topic, "How does this relate to …"
  • Recap and synthesise a discussion when it is time to finish a topic. This can be accomplished by the tutor, or by asking groups of students to offer a summary.

Small group activities to enhance learning and motivation

I can define teaching in one word: teaching is conversation (Al-Mahmood & McLoughlin, 2004).

What makes discussion effective in face-to-face settings? Active learning often involves tasks structured around peer interaction – that is, learner to learner interaction, to complement other types of engagement – such as learner to tutor/lecturer, and learner to content interaction. A tutorial may be the students' only opportunity to learn from peers in a structured environment.

As the figures below illustrate, much more discussion is possible in a tutorial session if students are allowed to speak with each other than if they are only allowed to speak – one at a time – to the tutor. If students are to learn to develop their own ideas and to express them, they need opportunities to practice doing so. Lectures rarely provide those opportunities for practice.

Group formation

A class of 15 to 25 may be too large for effective interaction and discussion amongst all students, so breaking students into smaller groups may be a way of achieving effective peer interaction.

How small groups should be organised: self-organised or structured?

Allowing students to self-organise into groups, though democratic, may result in groups composed of like-minded and culturally similar individuals, and a lack of inter-group interaction is a risk. In general, students will learn more from working with students whose backgrounds and ideas differ from their own. For that reason, it is often better for learning purposed to intentionally structure small group learning. To promote learning, it can be useful to move students out of their comfort zone, and to form and re-form groups regularly.

Random grouping

  • Assign numbers 1-5 to the class members.
  • Then form groups by allocating the same number to each group:
    • Group A consists of number 1
    • Group B of number 2, and so on
  • Then later, reform groups based on the sequence of numbers

Career grouping

  • Ask students what their aims are in terms of career, and group them accordingly.
  • Use astrology (Western or Chinese) to assign students to small groups - either with like signs or unlike signs.


Why would students be motivated to engage with others in tutorials?

  • Intrinsic motivation: students engage with learning activities which are relevant and interesting
  • Extrinsic motivation: activity based learning is linked to core content - to lectures, readings, tutorial exercises and is explicitly linked to assessment

Learning activities may be structured to take advantage of both social (intrinsic) motivations and task-based (extrinsic) motivation. A combination of both: in which social interaction engages (intrinsic) and is given value by assessment (extrinsic), is more likely to motivate more students more effectively.

Small group strategies

Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest collaborative and community building activities structured around learner-to-learner interaction,sources: case studies, small group projects, collaborative discussions, debates and role play (p. 55)

Plan to use small group strategies to promote active learning in your sessions.

  • Brainstorm
    Students present a query or difficulty to a small group. The group then brainstorms the issue including possible factors and solutions. Reports to the larger group follow.
  • Buzz Groups
    Short discussion in small groups: i.e. neighbours in lecture theatre about a set topic, e.g. difficulties they are having, a question set by the lecturer, etc.
  • Debate
    Students are given two opposing positions to defend which focus on a key question in their study.
  • Peer teaching
    Working in small groups, students research a topic and prepare to teach it to their fellow students.
  • Role play
    Students are asked to adopt a role and play it within a given scenario. Students are then required to debrief the experience, analysing the scenario and the various actions/behaviours using key concepts or principles from the course.
  • Snowball groups (Pyramiding)
    Pose a question: ask individuals to work on it, then to share their thoughts with one other, increase the complexity of the task and size of groups until you have a plenary session.
  • Tell your partner
    An activity for pairs: Each person explains a topic/concept/ answer to someone else. The partner has to listen and then ask questions.
  • Think Pair Share
    Each person considers the topic/question and writes down some ideas/answers. S/he joins with one other colleague for discussion. This provides a basis for wider discussion.
  • Fishbowl
    One group discusses a topic. The second group observes the discussion and each person records:
    • A partner's contributions (and gives individual feedback afterwards), or
    • The important parts of the discussion (may be identification of issues, applications, generalisations, etc., depending on the task instructions)
  • Mini-quiz
    A mini-quiz (3-6 items) is presented to all students before, as a diagnostic check on where they are, or after a task, to check their understanding. Provide feedback after the quiz.

For onscreen examples of small group work in Australian contexts, see the excellent resource on tutor training from the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney (2007): Generating Engagement.

Teaching a diverse student cohort

"Culture is not static, but interaction, it is the 'know-how' of living, of interaction using shared meaning and practices," (White, 1997).

On arrival – Encounters of the first kind

In a new teaching and learning environment, the new international student must do a number of things simultaneously:

  • use a new language (English)
  • negotiate accommodation and living conditions
  • decode unfamiliar cultural practices, such as Australian egalitarianism, and adapt to new social rules – areas of inclusion and exclusion, are arrangements loose or definite, how do people meet and greet
  • adapt and engage with new/unfamiliar approaches to teaching and learning, such as tutorials.

International students may need time to become attuned to the new communication environment through immersion (Ballard and Clancy, 1997). All students in tutorials can benefit from the inclusion of international students, and intercultural communication is a part of the interaction during learning, and in professional life.

Plan to promote constructive interaction among students from the start of a course, via pair work and group work. Intervene as needed to form and re-form small groups to avoid a situation in which international students end up working only with other international students.

Set expectations for including intercultural contrasts and perspectives into learning activities.

When marking written work of non-native English speakers, it may be appropriate to focus more on sense and meaning, rather than scrupulous spelling and grammar standards. If you will be marking student work, this is a key issue to discuss with your subject coordinator.

Expectations of English Language Proficiency

One of the significant indicators of English proficiency among international students at La Trobe is their IELTS level. In the figure below, the levels of English proficiency are represented as "IELTS band scores", from 1-9.

All international students must demonstrate a minimum level of English proficiency before entering La Trobe University. The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is perhaps the most common test. IELTS is a test of language ability in the following areas:

  • Listening (30 min test)
  • Reading (60 min test)
  • Writing (60 min test)
  • Speaking (11-14 min test)

Results from each area above are averaged to provide a 'band score'. At La Trobe University, undergraduate entry is set at minimum IELTS entry level of 6.0-7.0. That means that all UG students must have scored at least 6.0 in the writing component of the IELTS test.

The IELTS 9-band scale

Each band corresponds to a level of English competence. All parts of the test and the Overall Band Score can be reported in whole and half bands, eg 6.5, 7.0, 7.5, 8.0.

9: Expert user Has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.
8: Very good user Has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in familiar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.
7: Good user Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.
6: Competent user Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
5: Modest user Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is like to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.
4: Limited user Basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.
3: Extremely limited user Conveys and understand only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur.
2: Intermittent user No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.
1: Non-user Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.
0: Did not attempt the test No assessable information provided.

Source: Cambridge ESOL Teacher Support, University of Cambridge

Note, however, the definition of "Competent user" at level 6; at this level, there is potential for misunderstandings based on context, rather than word or sentence comprehension. International students who are otherwise capable of understanding English may need a period to adjust to Australian speaking styles and a generally unfamiliar cultural environment.

Further information

To refer students to help for academic writing, referencing, researching and using the Library, consult the Library Guides.

Dealing with and defusing difficult situations

The start of the semester is a crucial time for tutorials. Learning practices and habits of interaction are being formed, and students are more open to innovative approaches. A well-planned, well-structured approach at the start of a tutorial – one that encourages intercultural interaction, group participation and informal presentation – can establish a dynamic, effective and positive teaching and learning environment.

Difficult situations can and do arise, however, no matter how well we plan. The following are some troubleshooting strategies for use when difficult situations arise.

Strategies for preparing active learning

Situation Strategies
Passive behaviour, confusion: Students are unprepared for the shift to student-centred learning
  • Introduce student-centred learning and independent learning from the start
  • Persuade students that participation and group work are of value for both subject and program outcomes:
    • If possible, organise or suggest activities where international and local students mix - e.g. a mentoring or 'buddy' pairing
Confusion with task and assignment expectations
  • Make expectations explicit and include them in the Learning Guide
  • Relate assessments to learning outcomes
  • Establish expectations based on shared ground rules which set guidelines for interaction and student-centred learning
  • Build in formative feedback as well as summative assessment
  • Make clear that the intercultural and international context is a responsibility for everyone, and that working in an international environment is one of the program outcomes
Resistance, passivity, boredom
  • Be explicit about the issues, acknowledge difficulties and remind students of goals of tutorials, and ground rules
  • Make connections between tasks in tutorials, assessments and lectures
  • Use some tutorial time building relationships with socially oriented activities
  • Establish your own credibility and achievements and what you can bring to the tutorials
Staying in one's comfort zone: Students stay with own friends, and stick to their comfort zone of knowledge and contacts
  • Use random grouping strategies to form and re-form small groups, and make re-orienting in the learning space an expectation (See group formation)
  • Use cultural diversity as a resource, and actively bring in global perspectives
Fragmentation: Students organise into culturally separate groups or cliques
  • Set up habits of interaction and mixing early. Shift student out of their comfort zone
  • Do not hesitate to manage the selection of the group as cultural mix, then use peer evaluation of individual contribution, followed by individual agreement and sign off on evaluation
Local student(s) want to opt our of culturally diverse group
  • Build cultural comparison into activities and assignments
  • Rotate the team leader among group
  • Suggest a team meets outside classroom, e.g. cafe/restaurant
Low level of participation. Reluctance to speak in class or ask questions.
  • Establish expectation of participation and discussion with each other for all students, build the habit of two-way interaction from start of a course
  • Dilute the fear - manage interaction in class, for example, use pair work or instant groups, where student speak to a group, and each group presents a question of a solution
  • Quietness may not mean they are not participating - allow "wait" time for student response
  • Allow 5-10 minutes after class for Q & A
  • Assign a student or pair of students to moderate or facilitate a discussion topic each
  • Construct problem-solving tasks based on real world examples (e.g. media stories) and situations relevant to students' lives
Poor attention and interaction: Students overwhelmed by demands
  • Set guidelines and expectations for participation at start of semester
  • Provide lecture/class schedule, including library times, and other time-management tips
  • Ask groups or pairs to come up with a question on what they are not clear about
  • Students may be swamped by amount of reading - encourage selective reading, e.g. 'mining' an article
  • Encourage active conceptualisation of ideas learned, e.g. summaries, annotated literature search
Harassment, bullying, racism: Bullying, racist or sexist language or behaviour among students
  • Explain what behaviour or language is not acceptable
  • Refer to relevant policy and procedures
  • Place behaviour in tutorials in context of working professionals
  • Remind students of ground rules and expectations for tutorials
Emergency, medical, fire etc.

Contact Emergency on your campus

  • Albury-Wodonga: x8222, or mobile 0418 459 324 (24 hour service)
  • Bendigo: x7999 or x8999 (24 hours), or 1800 077 043
  • Melbourne (Bundoora): x2222 or freecall 1800 800 613
  • Mildura: x4099 (9am-5pm) or 03 5022 7855 (24 hour service)
  • Shepparton: x2683 or x2666, or 0000

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