Optimizing Learner Engagement ‑ Small Group Learning

The power of SMALL

Tips: Establishing and managing effective small groups

Setting the stage: Establish a safe and collegial learning environment
  • Session 1: Allow a few minutes for informal chatter.
  • As the identified leader, bring the group to order on time.
  • Treat the time with the group as a “discussion and conversation” from the start (tutorial vs lecture format).
  • Introduce yourself; your name, department or discipline, hobbies and whatever you feel will allow your learners to know you better as teacher.
  • Describe what has brought YOU to the role as Tutor.
  • Describe your expectations for this FIRST Session (start small):
    • Duration (we are here together for the next 2 hours…)
    • Establish a safe and open learning environment for all (name this so it is clear)
    • Ensure expectations for each session are clear for learners and Tutor – Example: arrive prepared discuss the assigned case
  • As a group, develop and record “group norms or house rules” – these can be displayed during each tutorial session. They are agreed upon rules for each tutorial session moving forward. These, if agreed upon by the group, can be adjusted, eliminated, or added too.


  • Arrive on time
  • Be respectful
  • Allow all to speak and participate
  • No cell phones

Review these agreed upon guidelines occasionally as a reminder or if there is a need to remind all or select group members of the agreed upon group norms.

  • Session 2 and onward: At the start of each tutorial session allow a few minutes for conversation. Respectfully begin at the assigned start time (this helps instill the need and solid expectation to be on time - professionalism).
  • Have some fun! As a group bringing snacks etc…. talk with the learners and decide.

Optimize learner engagement

What learners are saying (feedback from DMNB learners)


  • Cheering from the stands - Encourage participation from all learners
  • Let’s all have our say - Learners want to have equal opportunity to share their thoughts
  • “Pimping” - Pose questions to all vs putting a single learner on the spot
  • Tutor expectations - Be clear on expectations of learners
  • What’s the plan? - Review objectives at the beginning and end of session
  • Freelance - Know your stuff; Tutors and Learners arrive prepared (not reading guide)
  • Guessing games – Ask clear questions; mystical questioning approaches are frustrating
  • Get up and get going – Encourage movement, utilize white board, smart boards
  • Shhhh –No need to provide all the answers, allow time for learners to process information
  • Pause – Check in with learners. Are they following, do they need a break?
  • Check in – Informal feedback more frequently vs only during scheduled assessments

Strategies: Establishing and managing effective small groups

What works well
  • Get to know your learners – Invest time to authentically learn about each individual learner. This will help build trust, identify issues earlier, help with challenging conversations
  • Learning styles - Become aware how everyone prefers to learn. Ask them! Discuss!

  • Silence is ok – practice allowing silence. Awkward at first but will soon become comfortable and learners will come to know this as time you are allowing for them to “think and process” information
  • Count to 10 – when you feel the need to speak count to 10, it provides a comfortable break for you to allow learners to process and formulate a response or a question
  • 360 degree - when you or learners are speaking, maintain eye contact with the full group to instill group interaction vs narrowing in on and pressuring a single learner
  • Heads together – Allow learners time to discuss a question amongst themselves or divide the group, then come back to the full group to share the discussion (promotes leadership in learners)
  • Check in’s - Informal feedback to learners. Invite feedback from learners
  • Fair play – All learners participating:
    • Encourage the quiet learner, remind the group of the importance of all learners contributing to learning and that all participation is valued
    • Managing the strong lead learner, use techniques to create opportunity for others to participate without discouraging this learner.  

What does not work well


  • Lack of leadership
  • Dominant learners
  • Non engaged learners
  • Unprepared learners and Tutor
  • Unstructured sessions
  • Disrespectful, unsafe learning environment
  • Lack of feedback
  • Poor physical space or set up
  • Minimal opportunity for learners to speak, process information

Self-reflective action (2 minutes): Promotes transfer of learning


Review and reflect upon a small group where you were the participant/learner, and you feel it went well.

Think about:

  • What three practices helped this go well?
  • What features helped you feel heard and included?
  • Choose a minimum of one practice the facilitator or teacher did that stood out for you as a best practice.

Review and reflect upon a small group where you were the participant/learner, and you feel it did not go went well.

Think about:

  • Think about 3 practices that could have helped this session be a more positive experience?

Change in practice

Optimizing Learner Engagement - Small Group Learning

Upon review of some best practices for small group learning:
  1. Think about 3 practices you will continue doing within your role as Tutor.
  2. Consider 3 change(s) in practice you will implement to both optimize learner engagement and offer a robust, collegial small group learning opportunity.

Module summary – Optimizing learner engagement - Small group learning

  • Establish a safe and collegial learning environment
  • Get to know your learners
  • Develop and establish group norms
  • Check in with learners
  • Allow learners time to process and develop a response or questions