The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Small group teaching is an essential part of economics instruction in higher education worldwide and most instructors will engage in this mode of teaching in some way. Examples of small group teaching can be traced far back in history; for example, in the Middle Ages, scholars read original resources to small groups who listened and took notes. In the present day, most small group teaching in higher education takes the form of tutorials (also called seminars or class sessions), which run alongside lectures for a module. Students taking the module are split into smaller groups to recap and apply the lecture material. In addition, instructors of, for example, optional modules with fewer students may also encounter a teaching environment with a small number of students. Higher education instructors of economics small group teaching will often be economics research students but may also be academic staff. Ultimately, teaching in both settings follows very similar pedagogical principles, and the discussion in this chapter covers any teaching environment where the instructor works with a small number of students, say of approximately 3-30.

Universities typically use small group teaching sessions to give students a more individualised learning experience. However, these sessions are very expensive for institutions. To justify these costs, small group sessions – hereafter tutorials - should make a significantly positive impact on student learning. Yet in practice, the delivery of tutorials often lags behind its potential, with poor attendance a widespread phenomenon and students’ feedback pointing at their ineffectiveness. In a student survey at a UK university, students said:

"I do not see the point in coming to the class: the teacher just goes through the solutions with no value added."

"The seminars were dire and I don't feel they benefited my learning at all and at some point even just lead to more confusion over the subject."

Current pedagogical research clearly suggests that effective learning happens when students construct their own knowledge in an engaging and student-centred learning environment. This is true for both large and small group teaching. What makes small group teaching special is that it lends itself to interactive and student-centred teaching and thus has the potential to be an incredibly effective mode of instruction, when appropriate teaching approaches are adopted. Nevertheless, much of economics small group teaching still takes the form of front-led seminars, where the instructor develops answers to a set of questions with limited focus on students’ process of actually understanding the material. This chapter provides a guide on how to make small group teaching student-centred and engaging so as to facilitate the effective learning of economics.